Far From Heaven
Director : Todd Haynes
Screenplay : Todd Haynes
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker), Dennis Quaid (Frank Whitaker), Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan), Patricia Clarkson (Eleonor Fine), Viola Davis (Sybil), James Rebhorn (Dr. Bowman), Bette Henritze (Mrs. Leacock), Michael Gaston (Stan Fine), Ryan Ward (David Whitaker), Lindsay Andretta (Janice Whitaker), Jordan Puryear (Sarah Deagan)
In the visually stunning and emotionally stirring Far From Heaven, writer/director Todd Haynes channels the resplendent ’50s cinema of Douglas Sirk into a melodramatic masterpiece. Haynes, an innovative independent filmmaker who has worked on the fringes of Hollywood for the past decade, has truly found his voice here, using the visual motifs and thematic interests of one of the great Hollywood directors to tell a story that is both retro and contemporary.
A lesser filmmaker might have taken Sirk’s Technicolor panache and made a camp comedy, but Haynes is too smart for that. He realizes that, even though some of Sirk’s films can be read as camp, they were also deeply moving portraits of recognizably flawed humans working their way through difficult emotional situations and across social barriers. The real achievement of Far From Heaven is that it stirs our hearts and also conveys important messages about the embedded social nature of racism and homophobia without being preachy or didactic.
Julianne Moore, in what is surely the finest performance by an actress this year, stars as Cathy Whitaker, a settled suburban housewife in Hartford, Connecticut, circa 1957. Married to a handsome, successful sales executive (Dennis Quaid) at an electronics firm and the mother of two apple-cheeked kids (Ryan Ward and Lindsay Andretta), Cathy would seem to have the “perfect” life.
Yet, as Sirk’s ’50s melodramas always showed, the pristine surface is always a façade that hides lurking demons just waiting to explode. In this case, it is Frank, Cathy’s husband, who finds that he can no longer hide his homosexuality and begins leading a secret life. The opening third of the film details Frank’s slow awakening to his true nature and how, given the particularly repressive environment of a small town in the 1950s, it literally tears him apart. Sinking into a spiral of alcoholism and paranoid secrecy, Frank draws away from his family, leaving Cathy literally stranded because she cannot confide in anyone about this “terrible secret,” not even her best friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson).
It is during this difficult time that she befriends her gardener, a large, but gentle and empathetic man named Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). The only problem is that Raymond is black, and Cathy stirs up the local community just by talking to him at an art show. When she goes for a drive in the country with him and accompanies him to lunch at an all-black diner, the rumors really start flying.
As Sirk did so well his masterpiece All That Heaven Allows (1955), the film Far From Heaven most closely resembles visually and thematically, Haynes conveys the pains of social isolation and the pressure to conform that are at the heart of his characters’ problems. Racism and homophobia are deeply intertwined with a rigid social hierarchy in which discussing one’s opinions and standing out from the crowd are the surest means to a miserable life. Cathy is the most “liberated” character in the film, and her friends chide her about her support of the NAACP (while claiming not to be racist themselves). But, not even she can fully resist the pressure to deny her relationship with Raymond once things get really nasty. But, even when Cathy lies and ultimately ends her friendship with Raymond in order to save her social standing, we don’t condescend to her—“I would never do that”—because we feel so deeply the constraints under which she lives. Cathy is a moving character not so much because of her many strengths, but because of her few weaknesses, which ultimately deny her a fulfilling relationship.
Haynes, working with cinematographer Edward Lachman, paints the screen with a vivid array of primary colors meant to evoke the dye-process Technicolor films that were so popular in the 1950s. The red and orange leaves on the trees have an almost unnaturally deep saturation, and the night is not so much black as it is purple and blue. The costumes by Sandy Powell (Gangs of New York) and the production design by Mark Friedberg (who evoked the ’70s so well in 1997’s The Ice Storm) are also dead-on, conveying the clean orderliness and modern aspirations of America mid-century. Far From Heaven is not so much a representation of a particular historical period as it is a reflection of how that period was mediated through the movies and TV—perfectly manicured lawns, big hoop skirts, dedicated husbands who go off to work each morning in perfectly pressed suits, and conscientious wives and mothers who fret about their children and giggle like schoolgirls over afternoon daiquiris about how many times a week their husbands want to make love.
It would have been so easy to turn it all into parody, but Haynes plays it perfectly straight, allowing us to appreciate what these characters are striving for, and thus to better to understand where the flaws are in their worldview and why they are destined for tragedy. Although his screenplay is peppered with goofy ’50s colloquialisms—plenty of “Gee whiz,” “Oh, jeepers,” and “Mind your father” throughout—we are immediately drawn into the world because the characters are real people. Julianne Moore’s performance is superb, as is Dennis Quaid’s, which truly conveys the pains of a man who finally recognizes his true nature and, on some level, loathes himself for it. Similarly impressive is Dennis Haysbert, who 40 years ago would have been described as the “noble Negro” character. He is much more than that, though, giving us a character whose dreams and goals are constantly thwarted by a racist society he has unfortunately had to grow to accept. His interactions with Cathy are beautifully portrayed, giving us the timeless classic tragedy of two people who are perfect for each other, but must forever remain separate because of forces outside of their control.
Far From Heaven is easily one of the best films of this year. Film buffs will revel in its knowing evocation of golden-era Hollywood glossiness. But, more importantly, anyone with a heart who loves a good story well told and understands the subtle power of the cinema to convey important social messages and peel back the veneer of everyday life will also find much to enjoy and sob about. It is, quite simple, a marvelous film.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick