Far from Heaven

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 11/08/02 07:55:59

"Modern Old-Fashioned Melodramatic Storytelling Done Right"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It’s easy to fathom why modern filmmakers would want to dredge up the past in a style for their latest project. In an age of groundbreaking special effects, fancy rapid-fire editing and gross-out humor, the term “old-fashioned” becomes a compliment rather than a censure. Screwball comedies, archaic ghost stories and even “70s thinking-man’s action films” all come back now and then and present a timeless quality that will likely elude most of the titles even deemed “modern classics” today. Melodrama, however, is usually reserved for golden era television productions and has been relegated to the soap opera and disease-of-the-week variety. It’s mocked by critics and audiences alike, so why would any filmmaker take it upon himself to channel a genre from the bygone era of the cinema?

Not just a genre either, but a filmmaker himself, Douglas Sirk, whose literate melodramatic compositions of the 1950s were initially dismissed as camp but have since garnered a place in film history amongst scholars who cut through the operatic emotion to focus on its subtext. Director Todd Haynes has crafted a film in that very style; one that requires patience as its all-so-subtle underpinnings and overdramatic moments approach the realm of parody and if you didn’t know better, you would swear it was.

Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) seems to be living the All-American life with the All-American family in the All-American town. In the 1950s. Life in the suburbs, a supportive husband (Dennis Quaid), gossip with the gals over a pitcher of daiquiris and magazine reporters looking to feature her and her home. That’s until she sees husband Frank kissing someone else. And it’s not a woman. Big, jarring dun-dun-DAHHH moments like this are what melodrama is all about; overwrought emotion, tragedies amongst lovers and families and BIG music on the soundtrack to emphasize it all.

There are reasons why films like this seem dated today, no matter what attitudes of greatness are thrust upon them. That’s what I kept telling myself well past the initial hour of Far from Heaven, until I was struck with something much more. What a wonderful piece of storytelling was happening here. The familiar themes and plot coincidences we see in everyday daytime drama are there, but the way it’s being told to us not only slowly buries or brings new perspective to what we would normally jeer, but encapsulates about five decades of film history.

The more recognized films of Sirk were released during the time of the production code, well before the entity of the MPAA was telling us what is and isn’t acceptable for the eyes of the young. Even the title of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows is a subtle jab at the days when two people in bed (on film) must keep at least one foot on the floor. As Frank’s “sickness” threatens to destroy his life and makes him feel “dispicable”, Cathy befriends Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), the son of her late gardener and their platonic relationship gets the rumor mill rumbling in the whitewashed society. Oh the humanity! Cover your eyes, children!

Racism, homophobia and the breakdown of the Nuclear family are the dirty secrets of a society deemed utopia by any one individual whose perfect life can’t be bothered with the hard truth. The Ozzie-and-Harriet nature of the Whitakers is accentuated through neatness and the autumn palette of their neighborhood has room for all of the colors except black. Inside the house, “’oh jeez’ is not the type of language” they use. Not even a darn or a gosh is tolerated, making the film’s only utterance of profanity all the more penetrating. So restrained is their existence that we feel a sense of relief when the couple allows themselves to scream at one another. Even the audience’s early perception of their perfection reveals itself as an illusion when it dawns on us that even though they always tell their children “just a minute” they never seem to have one for them.

If ever a trio of actors complemented a piece of material, then the performances by Moore, Quaid and Haysbert are masterstrokes. Both evoking the spirit of the old-school substance and playing every moment with their feelings just barely up their sleeves, never does a scene with them play false or hokey. Moore (who should have won the Oscar in 1997 for Boogie Nights) may finally get her chance at the podium, delivering one of her best turns as a woman whose feelings overshadow her ignorance about her husband and the way society functions. And if “due” is the word to use for acclaim, then between this and The Rookie, Dennis Quaid may have finally had his big year. Watch the nuances of Quaid’s performance when he gets drunk at the Whitaker’s big party as exceeded alcohol consumption shrewdly frees hidden inhibitions. Haysbert (so good on Fox’s 24) has played the interracial love angle before in Love Field with Michelle Pfeiffer. But here he displays a kindness and gentleness of not the “Uncle Tom Colored Man” kind that Spike Lee will criticize until he’s dead (The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Green Mile), not even a “colored man” at all, but just a man; one who understands his place in the community, but nevertheless longs for more in the future, especially for his young daughter.

From the big giant titles of the opening credits to Elmer Bernstein’s perfectly melodic score, Haynes gets just about everything right. Edward Lachman’s cinematography, Mark Friedberg’s production design and everyone associated with this film is going to see their names mentioned in pre-(and likely)-post-nomination articles. Before seeing Far from Heaven, colleagues of mine urged me to watch or re-watch some Sirk otherwise my experience might not mesh. Time constraints didn’t award me the opportunity, but it didn’t matter. Despite my initial reservations about tone and unintentional satire, I can at least definitely answer the question (for myself) as to why a filmmaker would choose to homage such a genre. Maybe he just wanted to tell a great story. What could be more old-fashioned than that?

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