All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Review #1,398

Director:  Douglas Sirk
Cast:  Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Gloria Talbott, William Reynolds
Plot:  An upper-class widow falls in love with a much younger, down-to-earth nurseryman, much to the disapproval of her children and criticism of her country club peers.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  -
Runtime:  89min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG)
Distributor:  Universal Studios

“Cary, let's face it: you were ready for a love affair, but not for love.”

There’s a certain conflicted feeling of joyful melancholy emanating from the colourful seams of All That Heaven Allows.  On one hand, there’s a deep sense of elegy, caused by the worst of social toxicity.  On the other hand, there’s a blissful sense of infinite possibility, a feeling of rebirth. 

Douglas Sirk, whose film has since been re-evaluated by critics and historians alike to be one of the finest Hollywood melodramas ever made, also suffered the ignominy of being disregarded as a moviemaker who made ‘weepies’ for women.  Through critical appraisal by the Cahiers du Cinema group, in particular from the lens of auteur theory, as well as New German Cinema great R.W. Fassbinder’s relentless admiration of his works, only did Sirk achieve the rightful acclaim that he deserved. 

The much beloved work, All That Heaven Allows, stars Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, reunited again after Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954).  She plays Cary Scott, an upper-class widow living comfortably with her college children, but never really fitted with her social circle of snobbish and gossipy elites. 

She meets Ron Kirby, a much younger man who prunes trees in the neighbourhood.  They fall in love, but Cary gets the inevitable barrage of animosity from her disapproving family and friends, giving her conflicted thoughts.  This is also loosely the subject of Fassbinder’s homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and Todd Haynes’ more direct artistic tribute, Far from Heaven (2002). 

Sirk has imbued his picture with light and shadow, and an almost expressionistic colour palette that gives it an emotional tonal quality.  It is something that Hitchcock would find himself experimenting in Vertigo (1958), deepening his film’s sense of mystery and foreshadowing.  But Sirk’s film is warm and tender, accompanied by a lush orchestral score that tugs at the heartstrings.  Some might find the treatment plainly manipulative without any context to leverage on, but the film is ultimately a melodrama and must serve that purpose. 

Sirk, however, took it further despite being possibly restricted by the studio system.  He made a progressive film about a thinking woman.  He also made a film that challenged social norms.  In a single virtuoso scene involving Cary and a surprise gift from her children, Sirk literally makes us reflect on the lives that we are leading—are we really happy or are we a sorry sight? 

Verdict:  Sirk’s much beloved and highly-influential work is no doubt one of the finest Hollywood melodramas ever made.


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