Far from Heaven (2002)

Director:  Todd Haynes
Cast:  Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis
Plot:  In 1950s Connecticut, a housewife faces a marital crisis and mounting racial tensions in the outside world.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  Won Best Actress (Venice).  Nom. for 4 Oscars - Best Leading Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score.
Runtime:  107min
Rating:  M18 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language.

Far from Heaven is an effort from acclaimed director Todd Haynes (Safe, 1995; Velvet Goldmine, 1998) that ranks as one of his best works, perhaps his most accessible to date. He doesn’t make many features, but every feature he has directed has been lovingly created with a visual style so strong that his films sometimes are worth watching again just for its mise-en-scene. 

In Far from Heaven, Haynes recreates the 1950s melodrama, of which films by Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, 1955; Written on the Wind, 1956) serve as his greatest influence.  It stars Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as wife and husband respectively.  They live in a huge house with a well-maintained front lawn in Connecticut, and have a daughter and son. 

Cathy, the wife, is conservative, well-mannered, and understanding.  She supports the black cause amid increasing racial tensions, and is a role model in her town because of her effortless ease in balancing family life and presenting an amicable and cordial public face.  It is a very effective performance by Moore, who manages to win our empathy for her character with her mastery of emotional expression.

Quaid’s character, Frank, is the source of conflict in this tearjerker of a story.  A successful company executive, Frank however has a soft spot for handsome men, a weakness laid to its bare essentials in the first major turning point of the film – a scene showing him and another man kissing in full view of Cathy. 

Quaid’s performance is more intense than Moore’s, but is only effective in a handful of scenes, most of which are responsible for changing the direction of the narrative.  There is also a subplot involving a blooming friendship between Cathy and a friendly male Negro neighbor that adds complexity to the tale.

Haynes’ film is less admired for his narrative treatment of themes such as racism and homosexuality than his remarkable attention to detail to the film set and cinematography. The composition of each shot is deliberate, and Haynes makes no effort in concealing the fact that he is directing from a set, which I feel gives a unique experience for the viewer because it feels like watching a dramatic play on the big screen.  Dialogue exchanges between characters are also short and to-the-point, with emphasis on non-verbal cues that dictate the characters’ (hidden) emotional state.  

Finally, in the tradition of melodramas, music plays a significant role in Haynes’ film. Composer Elmer Bernstein infuses in his melancholic score (played mainly by strings and piano) a heavy sense of yearning and nostalgia not dissimilar to his score for To Kill a Mockingbird forty years ago.  

Despite its slow pacing, Far from Heaven is a straightforward film that mainstream audiences can enjoy.  For more critical viewers, there is plenty to appreciate and admire in this work of art.  Recommended!


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