Far From Heaven

on November 08, 2002 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
From its stylish opening credits to its detailed look and lush score, Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" deliberately means to evoke the cinematic world of '50s filmmaker Douglas Sirk. Sirk's films, such as "Magnificent Obsession" and "Imitation of Life," were melodramas about love, taboos and the sensual undercurrents that often threatened to drown conventional, bourgeois American life. "Far From Heaven" drops the melodrama, keeps everything else but subverts Sirk's themes by forthrightly focusing on homosexuality and interracial attraction. It's an interesting experiment, but Haynes doesn't pull it off and, except for Julianne Moore's extraordinarily nuanced performance as Cathy Whitaker, a "typical" '50s housewife who discovers her husband is gay, the film fails to come to life.

Haynes is a talent, but just as in his previous films, "Safe" (where one was conscious of his framing of each scene) and "Velvet Goldmine" (where style smothered content), "Far From Heaven" falters in its execution. Too often, except for the odd swear word or sexually suggestive scene, the movie actually seems to be a 1950s film instead of a movie about the 1950s. It could be a lost Douglas Sirk drama. The dialogue borders, at times, on laughable, and the characterizations, except for Moore's and Patricia Clarkson's as Cathy's best friend, are one-dimensional. As Cathy's deeply closeted husband, Frank, Dennis Quaid is not allowed to display a facade which, like Cathy's, cracks under the onslaught of the truth: He falls apart virtually from the first scene, undercutting his performance. And Dennis Haysbert ("24") as Cathy's educated and kindly African-American gardener, whom she befriends, is a bland, too-good-to-be-true concoction.

Haynes also makes the mistake of stretching the film too thin by assailing the racial as well as the sexual hypocrisy of the decade. The former is not fresh--even Sirk touched on it in "Imitation of Life"--and, more significantly, it detracts from what should have been the film's main, trailblazing focus: the hidden gay underbelly of "Father Knows Best" America. The end result is a film that lacks bite and copies too much from what has come before. Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert. Directed and written by Todd Haynes. Produced by Christine Vachon and Jody Patton. A Focus release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language. Running time: 107 min. Opens 11/8.

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