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FAR FROM HEAVEN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert
Director:  Todd Haynes
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  April 1, 2003

“Thank you, Raymond…for a lovely afternoon.”

“Thank YOU, Mrs. Whitaker.  I’ve had one, too.”

“'Mrs. Whitaker' sounds so formal…would you…”

“Would I what?”

“…Ask me to dance?”

Film ****

Far From Heaven is a film almost too heartachingly beautiful to put into words.  As someone who loves to write about movies, I don’t find many that leave me struggling for the right adjectives to convey my thoughts.  When it happens, I’m usually both embarrassed and delighted.  So forgive the mediocrity of my efforts.

A lot has been made about the film’s sense of style in recreating the lush suburban landscapes of the great Douglas Sirk melodramas of the 1950s, and rightly so.  But that’s just the surface…akin to admiring the metal used in the Statue of Liberty without standing back to take in the whole picture.

This movie is beautiful to look at, indeed…but even more beautiful to experience.  Whereas the Sirk pictures seemed to circumvent the real issues he wanted to address, leaving them as subtle clues for the attentive, writer/director Todd Haynes cuts through the haze of melodrama with an emotional purity.  The look and the feel may be homage to Sirk, but the undercurrent of something terribly awry behind the scenes of suburban bliss is akin to Nicholas Ray.

This is not a world of irony or cynicism.  Haynes re-creates the social fabric of 1950s life so perfectly that we don’t seem to bring any of our modern sensibilities with us.  Here is a world where interracial romance is quite taboo, and homosexuality even more so, and one woman who on the surface seems to be the ideal suburban wife, mother and homemaker whose world is pulled apart by both.

That woman is Cathy Whitaker (Moore, in a shining performance).  She is a lovely woman with a perfect house, terrific children, and handsome husband named Frank (Quaid).  Everything about this home and family is so right that local publications even hold them up as ideals for everyone to see.

But Frank has a secret, which emerges as a devastating blow to Cathy when she accidentally finds out.  He is gay.  In a society where such an admission would be the ultimate in humiliation, Frank has tried to live the “proper” life of husband and family man…and has failed.

Believing (or probably more accurately, hoping) it’s something that can be cured, he begins to seek psychiatric help.  Cathy, in her trauma, is alone…it’s not something she can share with even her closest friends. 

Someone she can share a bit with is the new gardener, Raymond (Haysbert).  Taking over jobs for his deceased father, Raymond is a remarkable man…college educated, cultured, well spoken, and a widower raising a young daughter on his own.  He also happens to be black.

A few conversations here and there, at first around the home but eventually in public, leads to gossip and troubles for both.  Their relationship is entirely innocent, at least in deed.  But the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear to them (and us) that what they’re beginning to feel goes much deeper.

In a sad twist, it is Cathy who becomes the object of scorn, even at one point by her husband, though for their time period, Frank is actually harboring the more destructive secret.  For all three, it is a powerfully sad scenario in an era where there can be no happy endings for any. 

This film invites you to love these characters, especially Cathy and Raymond, and rewards you with a tremendous return on your emotional investment.  Todd Haynes walks a careful line by deliberately invoking melodrama wrought from another time and place, but having the gumption to take it and his characters seriously.  We never feel the urge to snicker because these people are facing problems with a society that is so different from our own.  Haynes reminds us that there was more than a cold shoulder or a whispered word to be feared.

This is an amazing cast in top form.  Much has been made about Julianne Moore’s stellar and Oscar nominated work in this picture, so may I just add that she’s breathtaking from start to finish, and earns every emotional moment for Cathy.  But I’d be remiss in not praising her male leads.  I’ve watched Dennis Quaid for many years now, and I can say without reservation that this is his finest work as an actor, bringing the tormented and torn Frank to pitiful life.  And Dennis Haysbert, who has earned fame on television’s 24, is perfect as Raymond, injecting the character with warmth, dignity and intelligence.

In a sense, you could say that Far From Heaven is possibly the picture that Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray always wanted to make, but never could have in their time in history.  Todd Haynes’ work is both a tribute to that style of filmmaking gone by and an elevation of it, taking what was best and beautiful about one era and fleshing it out with the unflinching truth about the human condition so prevalent in ours.

Video ****

Much has been made about the look of Far From Heaven, so it’s no fluke that the DVD exceeds in the video department.  With a carefully constructed recreation of the old Technicolor visual style, this anamorphic transfer is replete with bright, vivid colors that leap from the screen.  Like those 50s melodramas, it’s a bit over the top, but undeniably gorgeous and rich in texture and palate.  Detail in the sets and art direction bring out the best DVD has to offer…this is a good one.

Audio ***

The treats of the audio are Haynes’ scripted words and Elmer Bernstein’s classic score.  Both come across with fullness and integrity in your choice of Dolby Digital or DTS audio tracks.  Neither requires much, if any, from the subwoofer, and really only use the rear stage to open up the music, but the listening experience is still a pleasant one, whichever track you choose.

Features ***1/2

Universal is fairly keen about being generous with features even without labeling a disc as a “Collector’s Edition”.  Far From Heaven boasts a solid commentary track from Todd Haynes, in which he discusses the development of the project, his inspirations, working with his actors and more, plus a pair of good featurettes:  “Anatomy of a Scene” from The Sundance Channel dissects the work more closely, while a standard making-of featurette is a little broader and promotional in feel.

Rounding out is a trailer, a preview for The Pianist at the beginning of the film, production notes, and a live question and answer session with Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes.  A nice package all around!

Summary:

Far From Heaven is one of those rare experiences where you can TRULY say, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”  Todd Haynes’ vision translated into a sumptuous screen experience, beautifully photographed and performed, and best of all, tapping into emotional truths that really find their mark, even for audiences 50 years more experienced than the characters in the movie.  This is a must-see masterpiece.