Set in Hartford, Conn. circa 1957, writer-director Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven is filmed in the same manner as a 1950s film — crane shots, slow dissolves and all. One of its few saving graces is its accurate look, never feeling like a retro-chic retooling of what the ’50s must have seemed like.
Colors are blindingly bright, Elmer Bernstein’s score sounds lifted from the golden age, and even the way shots are framed is perfect mimicry of films from that era.
Further comments about Far From Heaven will be prefaced with the disclaimer that I have not seen any films directed by Douglas Sirk, the slightly subversive 1950s director from whom Haynes has taken his visual and thematic inspiration.
But I have seen plenty of films that successfully blend different tones and those that don’t. Haynes goes nuts with the tongue-in-cheek humor of how people behaved in the 1950s and talked around societal unmentionables such as racism and homosexuality.
At the same time he wants us to laugh at Far From Heaven as though it were a training film, Haynes wants us to bawl like babies at the melodrama spurred by the aforementioned prejudices. Without the wink-wink stuff, that might work, but as it is, it’s like John Waters’ Cry Baby or Hairspray played for earth-shattering seriousness.
At the center of it all is Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), society-column regular, mother of two and doting housewife to the hard-working Frank (Dennis Quaid). Or is Frank working? Are his late nights at the office the byproduct of a strenuous job or a masquerade for homosexual tendencies?
Much to her dismay, Cathy learns it’s the latter after a surprise visit to the office. She encourages Frank to seek help (“I’m going to beat this thing,” he says.), but finds herself more frequently talking with her gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), who is friendly, a perfect gentlemen and Black. And two out of three don’t matter in Hartford’s very white community.
In addition to her husband’s “problem,” Cathy must deal with the sniping of her former friends, now telling rumors about her when she’s seen with Raymond at a bar on the “wrong side of town” (one of the very few scenes in the movie where the tones are blended properly).
When their characters are allowed to speak and act the way we think they would (not necessarily in the corny, ha-ha 1950s way), all three actors are in fine form. Haysbert, in particular, with his ambling smile, deftly avoids any snide story traps Haynes sets in his way.
I’m curious to know if fawning critics who have championed this film for not bringing preconceived notions of 1950s culture or postmodern irony to the table saw the same film. The film is awash with both, not only jarring us out of the story, but out of caring for any of the characters’ fates. Sitting through endless reinforcements of Haynes’ conceit sap any empathetic energy.
Though lush and well orchestrated, Bernstein’s score is too frequently a laughable punctuation to what should have been an intense dramatic moment. (Isn’t it funny how the music “strikes” when Frank strikes Cathy?) Driving-scene backgrounds use obviously amped-up stock footage. And every time a Whitaker child opens his/her mouth, Haynes rockets his elbow into your ribs.
Far From Heaven is a movie I very much wanted to like and did in the rare moments when Haynes left his actors alone. The problem doesn’t lie in the idea (Pleasantville operated on similar, far more effective, principles in 1998), but in Haynes’ execution. Next time, here’s hoping he remembers the difference between a feather and a sledgehammer.