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Far from Heaven

April 18, 2013

Far from Heaven (2002)
Director: Todd Haynes
Actors: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert

Far from Heaven

Synopsis: Hartford, Connecticut, 1957. Housewife supreme, Cathy (Julianne Moore), begins to see her life unravel around her, as her husband (Dennis Quaid) cracks under the pressure of suppressing his homosexuality, and her largely platonic relations with black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), become the scandal of the local community.

Review: This loving, bold homage to Douglas Sirk’s ’50s melodramas, navigates the tricky task of replicating all the seemingly dated tropes from that genre – indeed, making them dramatically viable – without descending into pastiche or kitsch. The opening to the film sets up Haynes’ triumphant vision superbly – introducing us to the fantastic ’50s style intertitles, Elmer Bernstein’s truly beautiful and poignant musical score, and the tracking shot (a Sirk special) that captures Hartford in its gorgeous autumnal hues but also documenting the community boundaries which Cathy will ultimately find herself penned in by.

Haynes does make subtle changes to the subject matter from his nominal reference point, All That Heaven Allows, by having his heroine, housewife Cathy, still actually married to a man (an alcoholic sales rep who is repressing his homosexuality), and by making the romantic interest come not simply from a lower-class gardener, but a black gardener at that. Thus Haynes provides himself with the opportunity to add to his class critique, a meta-commentary on gay and racial prejudices at the time as well. Although the homosexual politicking is a tad obvious and ironic – Haynes want us to get how perverse it is that Mr Whitaker has to suppress his orientation, even going so far as to view it as an illness he must conquer – it’s still fascinatingly played out, as Mr Whitaker gains no sense of humility or grace from his struggles, still berating Cathy for her association with another of society’s ‘victims’ – black gardener, Raymond.

The genius of Haynes’ re-dredging of this genre is that it challenges the assumed dramatic norms of contemporary cinema-going. Just because everything is a lot more artificial and melodramatic – from acting style and music, to costume and set design – does that make it any less truthful? Also, Haynes follows the Sirk doctrine of celebrating the rapture in things of sheer transcendent beauty. Just as in All That Heaven Allows, we had Cary’s aching, melancholic turquoise shawl when she goes to buy a tree from Ron, so here we have Cathy’s own lilac scarf, which blows symbolically one crisp autumn day to Raymond. (April 2013)

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