Todd Haynes’ fourth feature, “Far From Heaven,” is an accomplished marriage of elaborate style and content. Appropriating the look and language of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas down to the finest detail, Haynes deftly employs the genre’s Hollywood artificiality to examine racism, homosexuality and the sacrifices of women in a middle-class society based on perfect appearances. Universal’s new Focus Features division faces a marketing challenge in steering such a singular operation beyond sophisticated urban markets when it opens domestically in November. But critical plaudits, a superb performance from Julianne Moore and unconventional casting of Dennis Quaid all represent strong selling points, as do the film’s ravishing retro-chic visuals and meticulous craftsmanship. Buffs with an affection for films of the period will lap it up.
Polished imitation is relatively easy to achieve as Gus van Sant showed in his futile “Psycho” remake. But while reconjuring the style, emotional tone, cliches and many of the plot points and stock characters of ’50s melodramas, Haynes goes far beyond mere pastiche or homage. He builds a full-blooded universe and a moving emotional drama, where a director with less authority might never have gotten past the campy, kitsch aspects. In addition to classic Sirk soaps — in particular “Imitation of Life” and “All That Heaven Allows” — Haynes draws from the films of John M. Stahl and Max Ophuls’ “The Reckless Moment,” among others.
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Panning gracefully from the golden leaves of a New England fall, the camera reveals the pristine streets and cheerful storefronts of Hartford, Conn., in 1957. A natural creature of this ripple-free world is Cathy Whitaker (Moore), perfectly poised homemaker and hostess, loving mother and dutiful, doting wife to Frank (Quaid), successful chief of a television sales company branch. First sign of trouble in paradise comes when Cathy is called to the police station to retrieve Frank after a supposed misunderstanding involving intoxication and loitering.
As Frank starts hitting the bottle, his impulses become harder to resist. While lacking the courage to engage in more than furtive eye contact, he starts frequenting movie theaters and bars in dark alleys where men connect, inventing excuses about working late. Crisis erupts, however, when Cathy surprises him with a supper delivery at the office and finds him kissing another man. Desperate to keep the marriage together no matter what, she encourages Frank to start psychotherapy.
With tension at home eating away at her, Cathy finds comfort in her gentle conversations with their black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), at first prompting reactions of amused tolerance from her social circle. An educated, sensitive man, Raymond finds Cathy weeping in the garden and takes her for a drive to clear her head. But the pair are seen entering a diner by town gossip Mona (Celia Weston). As Frank drifts steadily out of Cathy’s reach, scandal and hatred spread like wildfire through the community, forcing her to negate her own desires and make heartbreaking choices.
Equating the stigma of two such distinct ’50s social taboos as interracial relations and homosexuality, Haynes’ script eloquently illustrates themes with clear contemporary relevance about being an outsider in a world that tolerates minorities only while they remain innocuous and invisible on the margins.
Some audiences may feel the absence of a truly devastating final act. But while it fails to prompt the gush of tears many ’50s melodramas unleashed, the drama concludes on more subtle, quietly wrenching emotional truths that resonate with the theme of women’s sacrifice so central to films of the genre.
As she was in “Safe,” Moore again proves a consummate vehicle for the director’s intentions. Her beautifully gauged performance encompasses the crisp efficiency of the perfect suburban housewife; the desperation of a woman buckling under social pressures and putting on a brave face despite the disintegration of a marriage revealed to be hollow; the gradual summoning of strength and a sense of herself after years of placing her husband’s needs first; and finally, the aching loss that comes when she grasps the impossibility of pursuing her true feelings.
Shedding the masculine swagger and easy self-assurance that characterize many of his roles, Quaid undergoes a quiet physical transformation, bringing gravity and underlying pain to his initially chipper Fred MacMurray persona, allowing just a hint of effete mannerism. Haysbert infuses real tenderness and depth into his scenes, while Patricia Clarkson hits the right notes as Cathy’s acerbic but supportive best friend, who ultimately feels betrayed by Cathy’s transgression beyond accepted boundaries.
Capped by the crowning glory of Elmer Bernstein’s emotionally and orchestrally lush score, the film is a jewel-like operation on every technical level. Its visual sumptuousness seduces from the opening frame to the last — bookended by gorgeous period-style credits — but never overwhelms the action.
Lenser Edward Lachman’s use of color and lighting is impeccable, as is his very Sirkian embrace of shadows, reflections, dramatic depth of field and frame compositions to manipulate mood. Devices of the time such as back-projection and studio sets enhance the organic feel of a film that, despite some deliberate departures, seems closer to a product of the era than a mere nostalgia trip.
Production designer Mark Friedberg has created a richly textured universe — the spotless town and clean pastel-toned stores, the Whitaker home’s studied but livable mix of traditional and ’50s modern, the autumnal Connecticut exteriors and sun-drenched Miami hotel complex where Frank’s closet door becomes unhinged during a vacation. Steeped in dazzling Technicolor hues, these settings form part of a seamless world whose fabrication underlines the rigid, synthetic nature of conservative mid-century small-town America.
Similar to her work on “Shakespeare in Love,” “Wings of the Dove” and Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine,” Sandy Powell’s costumes are stylish period re-creations with distinctive personal touches. For audiences wondering why the cinched-waist dresses look a little more chunky than they otherwise would on normally svelte Moore, the actress was pregnant during filming.