Todd Haynes works at the dark edge of Hollywood.Every few years, beginning with his creative 1987 introduction Superstar:The Karen Carpenter Story, he presents an original work that he has written and directed.His films often deal with themes or subtexts on the challenge of being gay in America, in different locales and times.
So it comes as no surprise in Far From Heaven that even this period drama, set in the tranquil environment of central Connecticut in 1957, the realization by one character of his sexuality sets off a collision of dominos which dramatically affect the lives of all those around him.And, to build on Haynes’ traditional theme of presenting a role with a unique characteristic, he adds significant racial tension, ‘50’s style, but with a New England twist, to this taut drama. It seems obvious at times, and even silly, but this simple tale of how lives are conducted, and then affected, by affairs of the heart, passes muster, even if it’s easy to imagine this script being stronger as a stage production.
While Dennis Quaid as Frank Whitaker is hardly playing Hollywood’s version of the leading man, his character’s actions directly and indirectly affect every other character in this film.From his adoring and faithful wife Cathy, artfully carried by Julianne Moore, to his colleagues at work, his loving children, the house maid, and even the characters central to Cathy’s life, Frank’s actions and decisions have lasting effects on them all.
But Far From Heaven is really a Cathy’s story.It is shot in a style reminiscent of the ‘50’s Panavision, and with exceptional detail to period, which includes but in not limited to the home furnishings, body types of the cast, and even the use of projector shots behind the rear window on driving shots.The actors are always fabulously dressed and coiffed, rarely absent a drink, or a cigarette, or a fur.And in the center, seeking to satisfy, please, support, and nurture, is Cathy Whitaker.Loyal to the core, but naïve in a way that only a person removed from the challenge and grit of the working world can be, Cathy is seemingly bolstered by clubby friends throughout, but when her interest in her black gardener presents white New England society with a simple choice, her world closes in on her.Her friends shun her, and her family, while the gardener’s family suffers a crisis, and all that she has is at risk of becoming a memory.
Haynes takes pains to present this film in a way that would have made it recognizable to audiences in 1957.The PG-13 rating may not be for theme, though it is so for content.It’s difficult to imagine a movie released today which deals with human sexuality, racism, social mores, and suburban ennui without succumbing to standard shots of commingled teens and modern dialogue.It’s as though we’re swept back in time not solely on screen, but in the theater as well, as Haynes presents this film in a manner unique to other period films which address some of the themes he outlines, such as Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights and Richard Pearce’s The Long Walk Home.
This film is not for everyone, though it is a decent story about a family experiencing a crisis the times do not allow them the foresight to handle, and presented in a remarkably vivid style.