Far From Heaven

Review by Adam Blair

Written and directed by Todd Haynes
Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis

Rated PG-13; 107 minutes

I'm loath to call Far From Heaven a film buff's film because it's so much more. Director/screenwriter Todd Haynes' achievement is to simultaneously pay homage to the deliciously, deliriously color-drenched 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind) and to also use that framework to crack the perfect snow globe containing our dreams of domesticity.

Far From Heaven launches itself from Sirk's 1955 All That Heaven Allows, in which recent widow Jane Wyman suffers (and suffers and suffers) small-town social ostracism and the scorn of her own snotty children when she falls in love with free-spirited younger man and gardener Rock Hudson. It's quite mad, really. Seeing it with today's eyes, the Wyman-Hudson affair is so innocent that their oppressors seem hysterically paranoid - which is of course Sirk's point. In this film, anything that strays across the invisible borders of propriety has to be dealt with severely.

Far From Heaven ups the ante and cools things down, both to good effect. In 1957 Hartford, Conn., Cathy Whitaker (luminous Julianne Moore) does establish a rapport with her gardener, and he's (gasp) a Negro (Dennis Haysbert, in full sensitive-yet-stirring Sidney Poitier mode). And in what can only be a sly nod to Rock Hudson's real sexuality, Cathy's husband Frank (a fine Dennis Quaid) is a homosexual, taunted and tortured by his own desires and self-loathing.

Sounds campy, no? No. Haynes obviously realized how easy it would be to mock this situation and these characters, but he's after something more. Some critics have said Far From Heaven is merely a way for us modern double-O's to feel superior to those silly, bigoted 50s folk. Well, first of all, a little self-congratulation is in order if we don't immediately freak out at the prospect of an interracial romance or homosexuality.

And second, Haynes isn't making such a facile point. Cathy's perfect world - and our own memories of past perfections, from childhood on up - are themselves carefully created constructs. She is forced to shed her illusions, namely that being a good wife and mother (cheerful, thoughtful, self-effacing, sexy but not too sexy) will keep everything perfect in her little world. It doesn't work because it never was a perfect world.

Yet Cathy's not a fool, exactly. She's both arrogant and innocent. What could be wrong with just talking to her nice, kind, sensitive gardener? What could be so dreadful about her husband's "problem" that love, understanding and compassion couldn't fix?

Haynes wisely places the film at the specific point in 1957 when the desegregation of Little Rock's schools was beginning to wake up white America to civil rights. Watching the film we remember that forces as diverse as rock and roll, the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War are either present or just around the corner. Far From Heaven should resonate today as well, when Americans are again waking up to just how complicated the world can be.

Haynes creates such a picture-perfect world in the film that we do hear it, and feel it, when it begins to crack. Everything - and I mean everything - is color-coordinated in this film. It looks like each autumn leaf has been hand-selected as carefully as Julianne Moore's ravishing wardrobe. The production design precisely captures the 50s magazine dream-home style of the Whitaker house, with its exposed brick fireplace, sunken living room and curving staircase. This is a doll's house, but it's a gilded one. Credit director of photography Edward Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg and costume designer Sandy Powell for their contributions.

The artificiality also works to make the drama both surreal and real. Frank visits a gay bar with an entrance located down a dark alley, shot at a slight angle (just a quick hit of German Expressionism). At the entrance Quaid is backlit with a patch of garish purple and green. Yet these touches make Quaid's horror more real, not less - this is how his character would perceive such a place.

The actors help considerably. No one (with the possible exception of Meryl Streep) is better than Moore at suggesting the play of emotions behind the most banal-sounding words. When Moore finally cries (a single tear racing straight down her cheek), it's heartbreaking.

Quaid gets a showier role and grabs it like it's the first solid meal he's eaten in days. His crying scene, in front of his wife and two young kids, is appropriately shocking - dads don't cry! Haysbert is also excellent, convincing us that he's more than simply a paragon of virtue. Patricia Clarkson (kooky Aunt Sarah from television's "Six Feet Under"), in the Agnes Moorehead role of the heroine's catty best friend, also shines.

Far From Heaven uses the artificiality of a once-disdained film genre to create something both touching and real. It's more fun if you know Douglas Sirk's films but I suspect it's nearly as satisfying even for non-film geeks.

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