Far From Heaven

Todd Haynes’ latest film takes place in dreamy 1950s Connecticut, a world of well-tended lawns and spacious, leaf-dappled avenues. In terms of production design, Far From Heaven is all-out perfection, with its Rockwellian portrait of postwar America, flush with the hues of New England’s seasons and the proud veneer of American prosperity.

Haynes styles Far From Heaven after the campy, high-gloss tearjerkers of Douglas Sirk. With its striking color tones, canted close-ups and beautifully lush score, he craftily pays tribute to that master of 50s-era melodrama.

Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) is, by all appearances, a perfect wife to Frank (Dennis Quaid), her successful, charming husband and a perfect mother to two well-bred children. Living in their tidy, well-burnished home, the Whitakers are emblematic of pure “Ozzie & Harriet” Americana.

Once Haynes shatters that veneer, however, hidden truths and desires come pouring out. After a late-night contretemps in Frank’s office, he admits to Cathy his homosexuality and plods off to a psychiatrist to “cure” himself. With her marriage now adrift, Cathy finds herself emotionally drawn to Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a black gardener.

Cathy’s indiscrete friendship with Raymond arouses outrage among her town’s self-righteous gossip-mongers, while Frank struggles to come to terms with his sexual crisis. In effect, Haynes gives conservative America a double dose of anathema: interracial love and homosexuality. Fortunately, he explores his themes with enough humor and visual flair to keep from descending into heavygoing drama.

The heart of this film is Julianne Moore, marvelously scaling that range from silly, Sirkian camp to nuanced, genuinely-earned pathos. Moore perfectly pitches her performance, seamlessly going from gently satiric to deeply affecting, as Cathy transitions from the carefree homemaker and society darling to the abandoned woman and society cast-off.

Moore is well-matched with Dennis Haysbert whose Raymond projects an easy, composed charm and the dignity of a man trying to make a decent living while hemmed in by the expectations of not just whites but the blacks in his own community. Their scenes have a quiet, revealing eloquence.

The one false note comes from Dennis Quaid. One senses a tentative, halting quality in his performance, and, in conveying his inner pain, Quaid settles for a glowering, grunting presence, constipated with shame, lust or too much whiskey.

To be fair, Haynes’ script underdevelops Frank’s character. Indeed, every opportunity for Quaid to mine his character for deeper layers falters simply for lack of material. A scene in which Frank makes a startling confession to Cathy begins brilliantly, but eventually peters out with Quaid sobbing and yammering, and the scene dies in his hands soon afterwards.

Far From Heaven’s campy stylistic framework can’t accommodate the weighty, poignant truths that must be expressed between the estranged and the heartbroken to allow for a satisfying resolution. Instead, we conclude with a series of half-baked scenes that dramatically fall apart and a style that clashes with the richness and sincerity of Moore’s performance. Still, Haynes’ revisionist melodrama is a barbed and funny enough social satire, so visually ripe and with such a commanding showcase for Moore, that it manages to be an affecting experience.

Grade: B

Written/Directed by: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, Celia Weston, Michael Gaston

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