Far From Heaven
directed by Todd Haynes
(Focus, 2002)

Richard Whitaker has a great job, a great wife and a great big beautiful house in the suburbs, complete with a fireplace, a den and a great big closet that he's extremely reluctant to come out of.

Cathy Whitaker shares Frank's great big house in the suburbs, but not the closet, and that's about to put a wrinkle in their marriage no ordinary psychiatrist can smooth out.

The time is the fall of '57; the place, the suburbs of Hartford, Conn. -- or, if you prefer, Far From Heaven.

Far From Heaven is an unusual film, an artifice about artificiality, a genre piece -- a 1950s Technicolor domestic drama -- that goes far beyond what the domestic dramas of the 1950s could discuss. In some ways, Far From Heaven is refreshing: a look at the '50s that's not cloyingly nostalgic, a reminder that not everyone liked Ike and that peace and prosperity did not extend as far south as Little Rock, Ark., news reports from which blare away in the background.

At the same time, its somber mood and lack of subtlety make it almost suffocating. Unlike other social critics, Todd Haynes, who wrote as well as directed, doesn't work by openly lampooning his characters or their period. Instead, he piles '50s cliche upon '50s cliche until the entire house, closet and all, collapses on its would-be residents.

To Haynes' credit, he works as much by visual image as by dialogue. The film opens with a shot that would have done Peyton Place proud -- the camera moving through swatches of red maple leaves into the squeaky clean sidewalks of suburban Hartford.

Big-finned cars crawl up and down the street. Mrs Whitaker (Julianne Moore) returns home in her station wagon only to find her son's bicycle in the driveway, and her maid (Viola Davis) -- a "Negro," of course -- standing by ready to assist in any and all ways possible.

And the symbols never stop, from the resort swimming pool that gets evacuated after a black toddler steps into it to the two single beds pushed together to make one that she stretches across to cry when she learns her marriage has collapsed, and, finally, to the fresh blossoms we see on the trees as Mrs. Whitaker drives off into the closing credits. Some are obvious, and obviously meant to be, and some are not. And where did they find all that hideous '50s squared-off furniture?

Just as effective is the cinematography. Haynes makes the most of the indirect lighting which casts an eerie pall over the Whitaker household, but he uses it even more effectively in the gay bar where Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) dares to tread one night on his way home from work.

The place doesn't need smoke to be oppressive. The illicitness of the patrons' purpose -- expressed in fleeting glances and carefully coded movements -- tells all. Finally, there's Dennis Haysbert as Raymond Deagan, the black gardener Mrs. Whitaker is caught being kind to. In Far From Heaven, Haysbert looks, walks and talks like '50s icon Richard Egan, adding one more eerie presence to a film that's already working the weird side of the street.

Raymond Deagan, Richard Egan -- is there any room for coincidence here?

Far From Heaven is not always easy to watch. Its purposefully stilted acting and heavy use of cliche dialogue remove any and all possibility for suspension of disbelief. It's rare in Heaven that you forget you're watching a film.

It's more like a visit to an art gallery, where you're constantly conscious of the fact that you're looking at something and trying to decide what it means and whether it's working for you or not. Think of it as an episode of Twin Peaks directed by John Waters.

Far From Heaven must have been a challenge for Moore, who, dressed in '50s garb and coiffed in '50s hair, looks nothing like herself and acts nothing like the Moore we've become accustomed to in films like Magnolia and The Shipping News. But then again, how perfect. In a town where superficiality runs deep, in a time when women were expected to be what they were supposed to be regardless of what was really happening around them, Far From Heaven is a false front about false fronts, a Frank Lloyd Wright of a film in which form follows function, often to absurd lengths.

Watch it to be amused, watch it to be informed or watch it just to get in on the discussion. Of that, there will be plenty.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 22 November 2003

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