Far from Heaven Review
1957. In rural Connecticut, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a housewife with two children, married to Frank (Dennis Quaid), who works in New York City. While being interviewed for her local paper, Cathy sees a black man in her garden. This is Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), the son of her recently dead gardener. Their conversation makes its way into the local newspaper profile, giving Cathy a reputation for being “kind to Negroes”. Meanwhile, Frank furtively, guiltily haunts gay bars – until one day Cathy turns up in his office and finds him kissing another man…
There are two levels on which you can watch Far from Heaven. If you’re unfamiliar with 1950s Hollywood melodrama you can still watch this simply as a story, told in a heightened, "retro" style – a story which leaves you with a large lump in the throat. Haynes deliberately tells his story in the style of the melodramas of the time, particularly those directed by Douglas Sirk. A crash course in essential Sirk would take in All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. Working in the then-disparaged form of the “women’s movie”, Sirk used the lush surface of his films (highly coloured camerawork, sweeping music scores) to slip past some barbed criticisms of 1950s American society. Since that time, his critical reputation has increased considerably. His influence can be felt on many younger directors, often gay ones: Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who remade All That Heaven Allows as Fear Eats the Soul), Pedro Almodovar, François Ozon…and now Haynes.
Undoubtedly, to recreate so faithfully the look of a Sirk film (especially on such a tiny budget, around $14 million, Haynes’s largest to date) is a considerable achievement. But that is what they have done, and the contributions of cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell and composer Elmer Bernstein are pitch-perfect. (The 50s was the high CinemaScope age: Sirk did use Scope in some of his films, but not in the three key works listed above – so it’s not inappropriate for Far from Heaven to be in 1.85:1.) But Far from Heaven is more than simply pastiche. Haynes has been interested in narrative forms since the beginning of his career, for their subversive possibilities as much as anything else. He uses the form and style of 1950s melodrama to criticise it for its own repressiveness, in particular with regard to the subjects of racism or homosexuality. Hollywood wouldn’t begin to tackle the latter subject until the following decade, but Haynes brings it in here. In an era where there just about every language taboo has been broken, it’s an achievement to make a film where one single strong profanity is so shocking. It’s all in the context.
Haynes has achieved what many postmodernist artists aspire to: a film that highlights its own artifice…but still achieves an emotional impact. At first the unusual look of Far from Heaven takes a while to take hold, but you’re soon drawn in. Haynes manages to avoid the traps of kitsch and camp. This wouldn’t be possible without the considerable contribution of the cast. Dennis Haysbert is a model of quiet dignity in a role that Sidney Poitier may well have played at the time. Dennis Quaid gives a very strong performance that bravely doesn’t play for audience sympathy: he’s deeply conflicted and in considerable pain, no doubt, but that doesn’t make him easy to live with. He’s still capable of being the domineering husband in one key scene, which brings home to Cathy how repressive this society is, and how powerless her own position in it. But at the centre of the film is Julianne Moore, in a role Haynes wrote for her. It’s a development of her performance in her earlier collaboration with the director, Safe: a woman who’s a blank, who gets to learn how society works in the process of being pushed to its margins. (It’s easy to compare this with her work in The Hours in which she also plays a 1950s housewife. In that film, similar feminist concerns are at work, but that’s ultimately a different film with different aims.) Haynes’s films have in the past often been uneven, brilliant parts promising more than they actually fulfil, but Far from Heaven is a considerable achievement.