FAR FROM HEAVEN
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language)
Running Time: 1:47
Release Date: 11/8/02 (limited); 11/22/02 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik
The difference between drama and melodrama is that drama focuses on characters over situation and melodrama focuses on situation over characters. Great melodrama has the ability to transcend all the conventions of its genre because it delves into the emotional truth behind the situation. Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven is in the tradition of old-fashioned melodramas, but it is not great melodrama. The artifice of the film—the look, the feel—is wonderful, but the story’s heart is sacrificed by the need to go one step further. Haynes has not truly accepted the concept of old melodramas and made a story within those confines; he’s taken the real world outside of the movies and made a movie about it. It’s as if Haynes doesn’t trust the simplicity and innocence of the genre and, as a result, feels the need to make it relevant and important. Taboos of the time—racial tension, homosexuality—are handled, but they seem to exist outside of the story. When Haynes manages to incorporate these issues into his characters’ lives and the situation at hand, he does indeed manage to transcend the genre. The resulting film is alternately poignant and artificial.
It is the fall of 1957 in Hartford, Connecticut. The Whitakers are an all-American family. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a housewife and mother with two children and a rising social prominence. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) lives two lives—the loving father and husband who works late every night and the man who is arrested for “loitering” and secretly seeks out establishments entirely frequented by men. One night, Frank calls home, saying he’ll be late again, and Cathy decides to surprise him by bringing dinner to his office. Needless to say, she discovers his secret when she catches her husband kissing another man. Frank confesses his secret life to his wife, expresses his desire to change, and decides to start psychiatric treatment for his homosexual tendencies. Cathy is forced to keep all of this quiet, and life continues for the Whitakers. Then Cathy meets their new gardener, an African-American man named Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who has taken over his family’s business after the death of his father. The two have a connection, and eventually conversations lead to meetings. The whole town begins to talk.
The trick to melodrama is that everyone involved must genuinely feel it and each element must be fully integrated into its story. The trouble here is the social content. I admire the film for including the racial problems of the time and, in effect, adding social relevance to the material, but unfortunately, its presence doesn’t fully mesh into the story. Yes, it adds an external conflict to the relationship between Cathy and Raymond, but in the end, the characters are stronger than it, which makes me wonder about the conclusion. The climax leads Cathy and Raymond to make a decision. They can either ignore society and rise above ignorance, as they have been doing the whole time, or they can simply give up, admit defeat against the overwhelming forces working against them. Haynes makes the wrong choice. It makes a point, but at what price? He betrays his characters, leading to rather disappointing resolution. These are, admittedly, relatively small quibbles, but they have a major impact on the overall success of film. When Haynes simply allows his character to interact and discover things about themselves and each other, the film works because it allows the drama to breathe and take life.
To create the world of the 1950s and its movies, Haynes and his crew have gone to rigorous effort. All of the design elements—from art direction to costumes—are nicely detailed. The cinematography is stunning. Director of photography Edward Lachman captures a sad world, full of autumn colors. The interiors of the home are domestic and safe, and the look of Frank’s hidden life is dark, green, and full of shadows. Throughout the whole film, the color palette is impeccable and captures the vivid, old-fashioned cinematography when Technicolor was in full force. Underscoring practically every moment is the score by Elmer Bernstein, which is always obvious but never overbearing in the slightest; it’s a perfect fit. The performances are also entirely fitting. Julianne Moore again proves to be one the best actresses working in film today. Moore’s performance is one of utter restraint and repression. We see it in the overly enthusiastic smile and the way she never pushes or probes any further than she needs to, especially when it comes to her husband. Then things start to change for Cathy. We witness her opening up to Raymond, and their interaction gives the film an emotional center.
Far from Heaven works as a throwback to old-fashioned melodramas in many respects, and the film contains outstanding technical prowess at recreating an era past. While I have major reservations about a few important script elements, this is a pleasant and occasionally riveting melodramatic treat.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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