far from heaven (2002)


director: todd haynes

julianne moore, dennis quaid, dennis haysbert

Making a film set in the repressed, conformist 50s isnít hard. The decade is intimately known, even for those of us who were born after the age of Ike, McCarthyism, Elvis and civil rights gave way to its frantic successor, the 60s. Itís hard to imagine a film set in the 50s that doesnít take its mix of complacency and dread for granted; indeed, itís hard to find a film actually made in the 50s that isnít thick with that peculiar mood.

Among the many marvellous things director Todd Haynes has done with Far From Heaven, his re-make and update of Douglas Sirkís 1955 All That Heaven Allows, is managing to invoke all that smug unease with a sense of familiarity unseen in latter-day period films like Pleasantville and L.A. Confidential. Haynes and his superb cast actually manage to inhabit the suburban Connecticut world of unhappy families and racial siege, with the aid of some of the most subtly superb art direction and camerawork Iíve seen in a film in years.

Julianne Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a picture-perfect housewife whose husband Frank (Dennis Quaid), a successful executive, is falling apart from the strain of repressing his homosexuality. She discovers him with another man in his office late one night, and while he undergoes ďtreatmentĒ for his ďillnessĒ, she finds sympathy and comfort in a platonic relationship with their handsome black gardener, a handsome widower named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert from "24"). While Frankís patently undeniable sexuality tears their marriage apart, Cathyís friendship with Raymond exposes the deep, seething racial divide that runs through the town of Hartford.

Far From Heaven, like the Sirk film itís based on, is a melodrama, but theyíre both sterling examples of this underrated genre, restlessly dramatic and quietly iconoclastic. While race could be carefully probed in 50s films, Frankís gayness could only be hinted at in the vaguest way. One of the bruising ironies of Haynesí film is that, while Cathy forgives Frank for his affairs with men, Frank explodes with drunken rage at the rumour that his neglected wife might possibly have feelings for Raymond. Itís the sort of social hypocrisy that we expect from a 50s setting, but in a film that has painstakingly created a sense of its bitter context.

Every performance in the film is superb, but Mooreís Cathy is yet another testament to her unique talent for finding good roles and filling out every inch of humanity in them. Late in the film, Haynes gives Haysbert a scene that we almost never see, as he admits to Cathy his defeat by the racist attitudes of the black and white communities of Hartford, and his decision to leave the town for the sake of his daughter. Itís painful and its sad but it feels more true than a staged, righteous confrontation with the town.

Haynes, whose previous films have felt rushed, like he felt unsure of his material, doesnít make a single misstep in Far From Heaven. Itís remarkable that a young director should be so sure of a period he never lived through, after the unwieldy essay on 70s glam rock he created with Velvet Goldmine, his last picture. Alongside Moore and Haysbert and Quaidís work, thereís an extra thrill in seeing a director finally hit his stride, as Haynes finally has.