As soon as director Todd Haynes’ (Safe) new film Far From Heaven begins, you know you are not watching your typical 21st century movie. Haynes has gone out of his way to reconstruct the romantic melodramas of the 1950s, most notably the so-called “women’s pictures” of director Douglas Sirk (Magnificent Obsession; Imitation of Live; Written on the Wind). The opening credits are big, beautiful and colorful. To complete the feel of an old-time movie opening, all that is missing is quotation marks surrounding the title.
Haynes presents us with the seemingly perfect marriage of Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid). Cathy stays home all day in her big, colorful dresses, takes care of the kids and gossips with the rest of the wives. Both their kids are perfectly behaved and only need to be reprimanded when they speak foul language such as “oh geez.” Frank is a high executive in an electronics sales company called Magnatech. Frank and Cathy’s marriage is seen as so perfect, that they even serve as the poster family for the company’s advertisements.
One night, while Frank is supposedly working late, Cathy decides to bring him dinner at the office, only to discover him embracing another man. Frank views his homosexuality as a disease and he seeks help from a doctor (James Rebhorn) to hopefully “cure” it. Meanwhile, Cathy is finding friendship in the most unlikely of places, the family’s black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). Whereas Cathy has managed to keep her husband’s homosexuality out of the sewing circles, she can’t hide her friendship with Raymond and although Raymond is a perfectly nice and well-educated man, the thought of an interracial romance does not sit well with either the white or black community.
Far From Heaven is one of the best looking movies I have seen in a long time. The beautifully colored cinematography is meant to look like the glorious Technicolor cinematography of the films of the 1950s. The movie’s opening shot—panning down from golden autumn leaves down across a train station—sets the tone for the entire movie and is even matched by the same shot at the end—this time panning up from the train station to the spring blossoms. I also enjoyed the film’s ending, not necessarily because it was an enjoyable ending, but because it reminded me of many similar scenes I have seen in many old-time films. For the same reason I enjoyed the film’s language. Hearing Julianne Moore say words like “jeepers” and “jiminy,” always aroused a fond grin.
The three principle actors in the film all give marvelous performances. With this film and his role on TV’s “24,” Dennis Haysbert has come a long way from the voodoo worshiping slugger in Major League that he is still best remembered for; Dennis Quaid bares his soul as the successful man trying to come to grips with his homosexuality; and Julianne Moore gives probably her best performance, carrying the emotional weight of the movie. All three have already been mentioned in early Oscar talks, and I would not be surprised to see one, two or all of them nominated come February.
For the MTV-set, this movie will probably be too slow and overly melodramatic. But for those fond of the Hollywood studio films of the 1950s, Far From Heaven will entertain, if only by bringing back some fond, movie watching memories. I give it a B+.