Far From Heaven plays homage to Douglas Sirk’s 1950s women-driven melodramas (“Imitation of Imitation of Life”, as the Village Voice neatly put it). Director-writer Todd Haynes pays enormous attention to getting the look and feel right for the period (1957-58) - Edward Lachman’s autumnal cinematography, the score by veteran composer Elmer Bernstein, and the Life magazine costumes and production design are adroitly accurate.Julianne Moore is Cathy Whitaker, a liberal-leaning socialite housewife whose middle class world is rocked to its core. First, she catches her solid-as-a-rock advertising-man husband Frank in the embrace of a man. Then she becomes the victim of the prejudice of the Connecticut citizenry when she naively befriends her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert).
The Hays Code isn’t around anymore to burden Haynes as it did Sirk. So Haynes can juxtapose the 1950s squeaky clean peachiness with gay men cruising and Raymond’s noble speeches on black rights. If the film has a flaw, it’s that Haysbert’s character is too good to be true: not just a small business owner but well-adjusted, tolerant single parent and expert on modern art to boot. He’s a reincarnation of Sidney Poitier’s 1960s gentleman persona that robbed films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner of any bite.
Haynes has his cast play this material, ripe for parody, completely straight and the effect is emotionally wrenching. Moore and Quaid personify the 1950s theme of keeping up appearances and the strain that it causes. Frank, at least, by film’s end has found a way to avoid living a lie in private, although it means keeping his personal life concealed. It’s harder for Cathy and Raymond to hide their colour than it is for Frank to hide his sexuality. (White) men have greater power to slip between worlds to which they do not belong.Despite how things first appear, Haynes isn’t celebrating this slick 1950s veneer. By picture’s end, he’s stripped it back to reveal the pain beneath. All the performances are fine, including Patricia Clarkson as Cathy’s slacks-wearing best friend, but especially Quaid and the superlative Moore. She consistently makes us aware of her true feelings in spite of the fixed smile and sunny demeanour that society demand of her role and position.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2005 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.