The film Far from Heaven is set in the 1950s, but explores topics that no 1950s film would have been able to touch – homosexuality and interracial romance. Writer/director Todd Haynes is a big fan of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), who was in turn a big fan of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows). Fassbinder’s film, which I reviewed earlier for this Interracial Relationships category, was a tribute to Sirk’s melodramas from the 1950s. And Haynes deliberately made Far from Heaven have the same look and feel of Sirk’s films, while employing some techniques from Fassbinder. The result – a film with both Fassbinder and Sirk in its pedigree – is one almost guaranteed to make professional movie critics get all tingly in their special areas. Here’s the thing – it’s not just a “critics’ film”; it’s well worth watching for regular people, too.
Frank and Cathy Whitaker (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) seem to be the perfect 1950s married couple. He’s a successful advertising executive and she’s the classic housewife. They have two perfect children. They are very popular with their peers. In fact, the first hint that anything is astray comes when Cathy is preparing to host a gathering at their home. Frank calls for her to come get him at the police station. He tells her it was all some silly misunderstanding; he had ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and an overzealous cop got the wrong idea. The specifics are not discussed.
At some future point Cathy, being the perfect housewife that she is, decides to make dinner for Frank, who is working late. She takes it to his office. When she gets there she is stunned to see Frank kissing another man. He confesses to her that he had “problems” when he was younger, but he thought he had been “cured” of them. He volunteers to attend therapy to permanently rid himself of this attraction to men. Cathy agrees to put a brave face on things while this is going on. Internally, though, her entire perfect world has been turned upside down.
While this is going on, she discovers that the young, handsome son of her elderly black gardener has taken over the business. His name is Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). He’s an educated man, quite witty, and all around charming. He has a young daughter of his own.
Frank’s therapy has predictably not been going well. He’s started drinking heavily and one night when he is unable to get aroused enough to make love to Cathy he strikes her in anger. Any chance of saving their marriage is now gone and he files for divorce. Left with no anchor in her life Cathy starts socializing more and more with Raymond. (Parallels to the relationship of the older widow with her younger gardener from Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows are entirely intentional.)
One day Raymond takes her to his part of town. It exposes Cathy to an entire world she never knew existed. As bad luck would have it she is seen in Raymond’s car by a neighborhood busybody and soon she is the object of scorn among all her female friends. Will Cathy reject any further contact with Raymond, innocent as it is, or will she defy her friends and social conventions and try to have a real relationship with Raymond? And it takes two to have a relationship. What does Raymond think about all of this? Is he even interested in Cathy in a romantic way?
Julianne Moore is the star of the film and she received nominations for Best Actress from several awards organizations, including the Oscars. (In all, Far from Heaven received four Oscar nominations.) I’ll be honest, though. While I think
Moore did her usual fine job, I was more
impressed by both Quaid and Haysbert, perhaps because I wasn’t expecting
anything too much from them. In fact,
this may very well be the best dramatic performance I’ve ever seen from Dennis
Quaid. He really nails the turmoil that
a 1950s man would have with being homosexual, yet being unable to conceive any
possibility other than his urges are evil and destructive.
I mentioned at the top that this film tried to capture the look and feel of the 1950s films. They did this, in part, by using the same lighting techniques and camera filters that were in vogue in the 1950s. They succeeded because one of the Oscar nominations was for Best Cinematography.
Far from Heaven is not exactly a feel good film, as you can surmise from the description. It doesn’t have the level of melodrama of Sirk’s movies, though, and that is a good thing in my book. For me the real reason to see it is for the performances of the three principals and for a take on what a contemporary 1950s film would have looked like without the restrictions from society and the MPAA. Far from Heaven will probably be best appreciated by fans of Sirk and/or Fassbinder, but it’s worth checking out even if you know nothing about them. If it sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars