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Heaven's Prisoners

 

Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes, USA, 2002

Rating: 4.6

 

 

Posted: November 23, 2002

By Laurence Station

Todd Haynes (Safe, Velvet Goldmine) pays respect to the post-World War II "more than meets the eye" subspecies of melodrama called "women's pictures," made by directors such as Douglas Sirk and Max Ophuls, in Far from Heaven, a straight-faced examination of whitewashed suburban hypocrisy set in picturesque Hartford, Connecticut in the late 1950s. In its non-ironic, meticulously detailed study of a seemingly ideal WASP nuclear family cracking apart, Haynes crafts a near flawless blend of superficial appearances and subversive actions, a world of weakening restraint and outright reckless behavior and, critically, the irreconcilability between Apollonian decorum and Bacchanalian desire.

Dennis Quaid plays Frank Whitaker, a successful sales executive for television manufacturer Magnatech, which has built a popular ad campaign around the image of he and wife Cathy (Julianne Moore -- who previously worked with Haynes on 1995's Safe -- in a remarkable, carefully nuanced performance) as Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech, symbols of burgeoning American consumerism. Cathy, a homemaker whose days consist of looking after the couple's two children, gossiping with other housewives and sharing mid-afternoon daiquiris, fits perfectly into this cutting edge-meets-Norman Rockwell picture. But soon small changes are introduced into the idyllic routine.

Frank begins logging increasingly late hours away from home, ostensibly to work on a new ad portfolio, and Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a handsome black man come to take over his late father's role as the family's gardener, wanders into the Whitakers' oppressively beautiful, red and gold autumnal New England setting. Frank's growing neglect of Cathy's emotional and physical needs serves as the catalyst that draws her to the warm, sagacious nature of Raymond. It also impels her to surprise Frank at the office one evening with a home cooked meal, but ill-prepares her for the sight of her husband in the arms of another...man.

Far From Heaven turns on the tension between Cathy's feelings of betrayal and her determination to save face in the neighborhood. Despite her shock and outrage, she dutifully sticks by Frank's side as he sees a psychiatrist to combat the "sickness" of homosexuality. Subsequently, she takes refuge in the company of Raymond, an outsider to whom she can safely confide her feelings. Unfortunately, Cathy is seen in public with her gardener, and the neighborhood gossip-mongers fan their innocent friendship into a fully raging scandal.

When Frank learns of Cathy's social indiscretions, he selfishly chides her for jeopardizing all that he's worked for, and she feels compelled to stop seeing Raymond, in spite of her growing affection for the man. Things seem to have settled back into a normal pattern over the Christmas holidays, but Frank, of course, finds no cure for his homoerotic urges and eventually engages in behavior that will destroy his family.

Far From Heaven smartly reveals what happens when people attempt to deny their emotions for the sake of maintaining the status quo. Frank might be despicable for abandoning his wife and children, but at least he's finally being true to himself. Cathy, however, resists following her heart, nobly sticking by her husband and protecting her children to the bitter end, and her tortured sacrifice elevates the film above mere melodrama. Frank takes the leap; Cathy does not. He gets his man, while she helplessly watches her true love disappear. The dichotomy between the two characters by film's end, and overall dramatic shift from a solved to unsolved state, potently resonates beyond the closing credits.

From a technical standpoint, Far From Heaven is flawless. Cinematographer Edward Lachman and legendary composer Elmer Bernstein deserve special mention: Lachman's use of brilliantly saturated colors and deep shadows bring the world of Hartford to life, while Bernstein's score accentuates the emotional peaks and valleys the characters travel with pitch-perfect insight and execution. In fact, if there's a single flaw in the film, it's Raymond's character. He's simply too strong, noble and wise to be believed. He's supposed to represent both an element of natural beauty and a paragon of racial tolerance, but his shining virtuousness, in contrast to other characters' more human foibles, proves distracting.

Haynes manages to honor melodrama directors of the past while fashioning his own bold assessment of a claustrophobically conservative period in American history that he clearly considers not too far removed from modern times. When Cathy tearfully explains to Raymond why she can't see him anymore, he regrets the fact that people, black and white, gay and straight, can't "see beyond the color, the surface of things." Far From Heaven ably manages to do just that, blinding us with the false beauty of its world, and then exposing the awesome burden that comes with keeping up such uncomfortably artificial appearances.

 
Not So Mellow Drama
Those interested in viewing the works that inspired Far From Heaven should check out Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955), in which a widowed Jane Wyman shocks her conservative suburban community when she falls in love with her younger gardener, played by Rock Hudson. Imitation of Life (1959) is another stellar Sirk effort, in which Lana Turner plays a woman who puts her career before her family against a backdrop exploring themes of race and sex. Max Ophuls' The Reckless Moment (1949) effectively explores what happens when the worlds of staid suburbia and the criminal underworld collide.

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