An extraordinary homage to, and deconstruction of, Douglas Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s, "Far from Heaven" is a layer cake of potent emotion, puritanical taboo, composed anguish, and forbidden affections festering below the idealistic facade of an Eisenhower-era New England family.
Operating on three levels at once while giving each a rich, resonant texture, writer-director Todd Haynes ("Safe," "Velvet Goldmine") ensnares the audience in the idyllic Technicolor fiction of the period in which it takes place -- right down to the sweeping, cursive title credits so corny they get a laugh. He plumbs the highly sensitive, highly secretive true hearts of his characters, who desperately try to plaster over cracks in the perfect-family facade as their lives unravel. But at the same time he discredits the halcyon image of a time that demanded such concealment by exposing its rampant, acute discrimination and its all-consuming importance of keeping up appearances.
Julianne Moore gives an intense, captivating, flawless performance as Cathy Whitaker, a consummate '50s housewife with a seemingly perfect husband named Frank (Dennis Quaid) who is a sales executive for a line of televisions, and two obedient children who never need scolding for infractions any worse than saying "Aw, jeez!" when told it's time for bed.
She's been profiled in the newspaper society pages. She is always perfectly coifed and immaculately dressed in pretty, petticoated Dior knock-offs with small waists and capped sleeves. And from time to time she and her housewife neighbors secretly nurse daiquiris in her kitchen while gossiping ("She's been liberal ever since she played summer stock with all those seamy Jewish boys," one sniffs disapprovingly about an acquaintance) and tittering in whispers about sex ("Once a week? You get off easy!").
But Cathy's superlatively ordered world comes crashing down around her when she's inspired to take her late-working husband his dinner at the office one night, only to walk in on him kissing another man. With Frank's tortured feelings about his homosexuality driving him to drink, and with no one safe to confide in (her girlfriends would shun her if they knew), Cathy becomes drawn to the tender understanding of her gardner (Dennis Haysbert), with whom she dare not be seen in public, not only because he's not her husband and he's not of her social class, but especially because he's black.
"Far from Heaven" is ingrained with the spirit and the trappings of its inspirations (films like Sirk's "All the Heaven Allows" and "Imitation of Life"). Its homes and costumes (by the brilliant Sandy Powell) are immaculate, and it's always a perfect autumn day full of vivid colors and chirping birds on its often unmistakably soundstage sets. But more importantly "Heaven" taps the very souls of every overly succulent character so effectively you can feel the melodramatic weight of these events as if you were trapped in their artificially genteel lives right alongside them.
Looking every inch the clip-art image of a '50s businessman, Quaid gives a powerful, compelling performance of Frank's anguish over the desires he's tried desperately to deny for years. "I know it's a sickness," he cries to Cathy in a gut-wrenching confession, "because it makes me feel despicable." But even as he seeks psychological and medical "treatment," and reconciliation with his wife, Frank is torn apart, finally reaching a breaking point that turns the tide of the movie.
Sonorous, soft-spoken Haysbert (President Palmer on Fox's serial thriller "24") is perfectly cast as Raymond the gardner, a single father with a love of modern art and a business degree he has been unable to put to use because of his position in society. As his relationship with Cathy evolves into an unspoken romance that can never be consummated, they risk brief and seemingly innocuous public rendezvous that bring the thinly veiled wrath of both their communities.
And through it all Moore portrays poignantly, and without a touch of the irony that lurks in the dark corners of the film, Cathy's desperate, needful clinging to her illusions of a Ladies' Home Journal life.
"Far from Heaven" is a masterful marriage of the immaculate, if precarious, image of blissful post-War Americana with the authentic, imperfect humanity and the malignant subterfuge that always lay beneath it. That Haynes can both maintain and dismantle the facades that his genre and his characters construct is a wonderous accomplishment of veracity and narrative grace, so effectively and emotionally enveloping that this picture will almost certainly be one of the two or three best movies of 2002.
Run time: 107 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 12th March 2003
Box Office USA: $15.8M
Box Office Worldwide: $29M
Distributed by: USA Films
Production compaines: Clear Blue Sky Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 182 Rotten: 28
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Todd Haynes
Starring: Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, Dennis Quaid as Frank Whitaker, Dennis Haysbert as Raymond Deagan, Patricia Clarkson as Eleanor Fine, Viola Davis as Sybil, James Rebhorn as Dr. Bowman, Michael Gaston as Stan Fine, Celia Weston as Mona Lauder, June Squibb as Elderly Woman, Chance Kelly as Tallman
Also starring: Johnathan McClain
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