Far From Heaven Movie Review
First she was reduced to an allergic-to-everything blob of flesh in Safe. Now she's emotionally torn asunder as her husband goes gay and the only man she can turn to happens to be black.
In 2002 that wouldn't turn a single head.
In 1957... she's got herself a problem.
Far From Heaven is a dramatic and assured return to form for Haynes following his lackluster and obvious attempt at gaining Hollywood street cred with Velvet Goldmine. Heaven tells the story of a stereotypical Hartford, Connecticut family knee-deep in the glory that was the '50s. Practically a remake of Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows -- from its red-haired starlet to the shots of New England leaves changing color -- Haynes' film is an homage to an era of deep, deep repression.
Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) live in the perfect house in the perfect suburb. She's radiant in her June Cleaver dress and enormous powder-blue station wagon, complete with fins. He's got the perfect job as a "high tech" executive in the Big City. In fact, together they're "Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech," the toast of the neighborhood.
But when Frank ends up arrested on a vague charge of public drunkenness or something or other, the Whitakers' "perfect" life begins to slowly unravel. Soon enough, Frank is indulging, albeit with a very guilty conscience, in a dalliance with men he picks up at the local underground gay bar. When Cathy discovers her husband in flagrante delicto, she doesn't demand a divorce -- she sends him to the doctor to be "cured." When he becomes cold and frustrated, Cathy turns to the only kind soul she can find (her catty friends being hardly sympathetic), her black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Before long, Cathy is being shunned by the town for her husband's new cruelty and for her presumably loose morals. After all, what respectable woman would be seen carousing with a black man on that side of town?
With its stilted Leave It to Beaver dialogue ("Aw, shucks!") and dead-perfect sets, Far From Heaven could easily have gone for broad satire like Pleasantville or a play-it-straight page-from-history like The Ice Storm. But Far From Heaven lands in a middle ground of hyperrealism and clinical detachment from its subject matter. You can enjoy the dazzling crane shots that capture the period architecture and impressive costumes, or you can dig into the subtle meat of Haynes's disturbing story. (Or you can do both.)
Heaven is impressive in the way it captures the stifling oppression of the era and cruelty of those who inhabited it -- the willingness to look the other way at your own problems while gossiping fiercely at those of others. Foremost, Haynes is straightforward in presenting the idea of homosexuality as a medical condition that can be cured and racial integration as an interesting idea (but something that probably ought never to happen, even in forward-thinking Connecticut). But one of Haynes's most clever motifs is the way Cathy instantly tells her children to be quiet every time they try to speak to their parents. They're insulated in a shell of ignorance and repression to the point where you absolutely know they'll have the same racial attitudes as the townspeople around them, and that if anyone has learned anything by the end of the film, it's definitely not the kids.
Far From Heaven has nothing approaching the explicitness of a movie like Haynes's Poison. In fact it's rated PG-13. And while I certainly don't need to see the things implied behind Heaven's closed doors, Haynes's restraint tends to work against him here. The result is a film that moves too slowly and leaves too many details to the imagination (such as the reason for Frank's arrest), almost as if Haynes is working from a first draft of a script that he simply forgot to finish.
But based on the strength of Moore's performance and otherwise solid direction from Haynes, it's easy to overlook Heaven's faults to focus on its innumerable moments of pure genius.
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