Published on January 3rd, 2003 | by Ed Colley0
Far from Heaven
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, James Rebhorn
As movies become increasingly concerned with plot and action and little else, helmed by pedestrian directors who don’t know their mise-en-scene from their Marks & Spencer, it is refreshing to see that there are still some people working in Hollywood who focus as much on style as on content. In Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine) has shown himself to be one such person, taking as much care in the look and feel of his film as in its narrative. By doing so, he has created one of the most visually enjoyable movies of the year.
Far from Heaven follows the fortunes of dutiful, all-American, 1950s housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), whose carefully constructed world falls apart when her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid) admits to his hitherto closeted homosexuality. As she takes comfort in those around her, particularly in her friendship with her black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) Cathy comes face to face with the inherent bigotry of her Connecticut town, and comes to recognise her true desires at the very moment that she must give them up.
If this sounds like the plot to a 1950s melodrama, then this is because that is exactly what it is. In fact, Far from Heaven is a modern reflection on issues such as race and sexuality, filtered through the conventions of famous women’s weepies such as Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows. And it is not just a distinct narrative similarity that connects Far from Heaven to the films of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli et al. From the opening scenes of the film, as the camera glides through the rich golden colours of a New England fall, accompanied by the sweeping strings of a beautiful Elmer Bernstein score which rises to a crescendo when the title of the film, (with its very 1950s specific typography) appears on the screen, it is clear that Far From Heaven is a melodrama that derives its style from the grand tradition of emotionally and stylistically intense films that have preceded it.
It is with the German émigré Douglas Sirk that Far from Heaven can best be compared. Sirk dealt primarily with stories of women in seemingly privileged worlds (which he presented in vibrant Technicolor), but whose lives he portrayed as being ruled and repressed by the conventions of familial pressures and society at large. Sirk managed to evade the strict moral laws governing the production of films at the time by presenting a world that an audience would wish to aspire to, but which he covertly showed to be crumbling from within.
Haynes picks up where Sirk left off, and uses the same 1950s setting, the same vivid use of colour and the same emotional intensity to portray a seemingly perfect family idyll that is, in fact, falling apart from the inside. As Sirk used a beautiful visual style that would attract audiences on one level, enabling him to hopefully reach them on another, so Haynes feeds from this tradition of cinematography and creates a film that is literally a delight to become emotionally involved in.
As well as his vibrant use of colour, lush Bernstein score and emotive plot, Haynes has managed to bring together a quality set of actors. Julianne Moore is superb as Cathy, a true heroine who valiantly tries to keep her family together against adversity but who is finally waylaid not only by a husband who can no more control his feelings for other men as she can for Raymond, but also by the town that had previously heralded her as the epitome of upper middle class America and who end up shunning her for her ‘scandalous’ behaviour. Moore beautifully evokes Cathy’s ability to maintain the façade of normality without making her stoicism unrealistic or frustrating, and when the façade cracks and Cathy realises that the life she loves and has worked hard for has disintegrated, her pain and anguish are heart breaking. Moore’s final scene at the train station, as she realises that both the men in the life have left and that as a woman she must stay and continue for her family regardless, is one of the most truly cinematic moments of the past couple of years.
Moore is supported by a stirling cast. Haysbert is strong and dependable, as sturdy as the trees that Raymond cares for, and both Patricia Clarkson as Cathy’s best friend and Viola Davis as her maid, put in likeable and dependable performances. Quaid in particularly is impressive, totally believable as the successful businessman who’s easy charm and confidence belies sexual confusion and a deep loneliness.
Yet the real star of Far from Heaven is Todd Haynes himself. From his use of colour and shadow, to the direction of his cast, the movement of the camera and his various homages to the films he derives inspiration from (such as in a scene where leaves whirl around the kissing figures of Frank and Cathy, representing the maelstrom of their emotions and reminiscent of the beginning and end of Written on the Wind) Haynes is responsible for a film that looks, sounds and feels fantastic, one that could have easily parodied the life it represents but instead treats it with respect, thereby allowing the audience to not only enjoy an aesthetically-pleasing two hours, but also to reflect on just how far, or indeed how little, society has developed since the films that Far from Heaven so lovingly and openly revisits.