Far From Heaven

Haynes and Vachon reunite once again to strap Mr. and Mrs. America to the Saturday Evening Post. "Far From Heaven" is a colorful "kitsch" portrait of what could unexpectedly go wrong amidst upper-middle-class Americans half a century back when people would put up appearances, but couldn't manage to keep the truth hidden far from the madding crowd.

Julianne Moore, as Cathy Whitaker, captures the essence of a fifties housewife incredibly. Knowing exactly when to be diplomatic, friendly, magnanimous, or unhappy, she is exultant as the motor behind the home front. Although her outfits (beautifully designed by Sandy Powell) are a little "too too" (the elaborate materials used, for example, to construct these housedresses were never actually used for such designs during that period), the cut is perfect, the intention is fine, and one accepts such fabrics as part of the plush richness to be found in Haynes' sublimated suburbia. (Cathy will finally leave her housedresses behind to evolve into a dress suit and pursue newfound freedoms.)

Dennis Quaid, as Frank Whitaker, writhes exquisitely with conflict and inner torment for enjoying the love that dare not speak its name either in movie theatres or in offices. (Let's face it, Frank, there's nothing like unwinding after a hard day at work.) He goes over the top in such a deliciously believable and controlled way that he makes us want to throw our arms around him and do whatever we can to help him out with his predicament. (A curious afterthought: one might reasonably wonder how Frank would respond if going to see this particular movie.)

Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) is the black "Rock Hudson" type who, with his seductively deep timbre, impresses us as he displays his tools of fathership. He proves to be a kind, warm-hearted man who harbors only good intentions toward the wonderful (and in no way unattractive) Mrs. Whitaker. Although he repeatedly appears and disappears in and out of several bushes, he genuinely seems more interested in the lady of the house than in the flora gloriosa he tends.

The neighbors are another matters altogether. They can't stop gossiping or expressing disfavor and disdain toward anyone who doesn't fit properly into their scheme of things. These types would've done much the same in a Douglas Sirk film. Director Todd Haynes recalls that "In many of Sirk's films it's the children, older kids, who are often the most extreme spokespeople for the repressions of their culture. There's no sentimentality towards offspring in these films." In Haynes' present film, on the other hand, the children (Ryan Ward and Lindsay Andretta), caught between the tumultuous developments taking place within their household, are too young to have yet grown up into Sirkian know-it-all brats deeply embedded in the throes of revolt. In fact, young David (Ryan Ward) is so obedient, helpful, and dutiful, that he appears too good to be true and therefore fits right into the scope of this sort of melodrama. Too young to push his parents around, mom and dad will have to look to their neighbors and peers for degradation.

Haynes' attention to detail has made sublime use of production designer Mark Friedberg's talents. The transitions from locations to sets are seamless and one gets so lost in the color combinations that one almost believes Technicolor has returned at last. Of course, DP Edward Lachman has also done his best in rendering images of perfection that capture the essence of this movie. And then there's the inimitable Elmer Bernstein score that adds a special element so hauntingly connected to all films with which he has been associated. (NB- notice the leitmotif running through the film like a delicate thread. The music also serves on occasion as a source of revelation and announcement before a specific action or dramatic moment takes place, such as when the young boy appears poolside to join his family.)

Haynes may ultimately be disappointed, however, in expecting an audience that will react "with tears. Tears of recognition, where the heightened stylistic experience only clarifies how much, in this all-too-human story, we recognize ourselves." One appreciates the craft with which the whole film has been constructed, but cannot ignore a seemingly intentional tongue-in-cheek humor at play which becomes heightened by the slow paced development of the dramatic story. Sirk was, like Haynes is, a man of devoted passion, but the former forged the impulses of his characters with more force.

What becomes especially interesting about the film, although not necessarily an essential part of cinematic dissertation, is the fact that the title has relevant aspects in varying ways. First of all, it announces the fact that things are not as they might appear at first glance in the state of Connecticut. Although the title is derived from "All That Heaven Allows", there is no attempt to make either the plot line or the characters bear any direct resemblance to this earlier work. This doesn't matter either, since the film is intended as an "homage" to Douglas Sirk and therefore it brews together his approaches and methods into a new tale that "kitschifies" even further the work of the "master" (if such a thing is possible). In this way, the Haynes film winds up, indeed, far from "Heaven". Despite being situated in the fifties, the story deals with the taboo topics of homosexuality and mixed race relations. (What a hoot for the neighbors; such goings-on would certainly have kept their tongues wagging!)

Because of these deviations, a seemingly happy marriage is methodically torn apart, behind closed doors (naturally). There are other matters afoot, however, which are not discussed within the framework of the film, but inherently suggested by events themselves. The homosexual husband of the fifties, who was unable to come out a-la-nineties, suffers torment because he has followed a path commanded by social dictates. Poor boy! (Remember that this man believes that any of the medical nightmares implemented for corrective treatment during the fifties should be considered in order that he might continue to lead a "normal" life!) And the wife, who finds herself edging closer to the gardener's hedge, knows that, if she should transgress other specific social rules, she could easily place both her family's security and her own personal standing in the community at risk. Poor girl! (She'll just have to be satisfied with her meager and well-intended donations to the NAACP.) Both of these married partners are living lives that are far from Heaven. And the neighborhood they live in, despite its warm autumnal hues and Norman Rockwell streets, is equally distanced from any peace on high. Yes, this picture book portrayal of American domestic bliss from two generations ago holds as many surprises in store for the viewer as the quiet, middle American town revealed in Don Siegel's "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (where people also felt threatened by the unknown). Haynes' film takes place in Connecticut where, despite the fact that we've travelled fifty years onward, one nowadays often has to have a residency permit to sun and swim at certain beaches in "The Constitution State". (After all, one can't be too careful of riff-raff.)

It may be terrifying to some to contemplate that many will probably take this film to heart in completely the wrong way. Those separated from the sophistication of civilization may tend to believe that this film is meant as a diatribe against both homosexuality and mixed relations. (Such people will undoubtedly miss the humor as well.) Be wary, traveler, of those who would tell you the family portrayed here has created its own problems. Such harbingers belong amongst the group of neighbors found in the movie. Send them back to a past generation if you cannot enlighten them. Yes, it's frightening to think that some are still so wrapped up in discrimination that they can't manage to understand what life is all about. Never mind, they have rules to tell them what they should do to prevent making any mistakes or wasting any time trying to think about things.

No, it isn't very pretty what a town without pity can do.

© 1994-2006 The Green Hartnett