“Far From Heaven,” the new movie of the renowned director Todd Haynes, is set in Hartford in the Eisenhower era. It is set on a simpler time when a wife could have the maid put the children to bed while she rushed to her husband’s office to bring him the dinner which he missed by working late.
The film tells the story of a well-off housewife, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), in late 1950’s Connecticut. She finds her world turned upside down by two challenges which force her to reassess its merits. First sign of trouble in paradise comes when Cathy is called to the police station to retrieve Frank (Dennis Quaid), her husband, 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 secretive eye contact, he starts frequenting movie theaters and bars in dark alleys where meets men, 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.
In time, she finds herself rejected by apparent captivation with Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), her attentive and handsome black gardener. An educated, sensitive man, Raymond finds Cathy weeping in the garden and takes her for a drive to clear her head. But the pair is seen entering a diner by town gossip Mona (Celia Weston). As Frank is out of Cathy’s reach, scandal and hatred spread through the community. She needs then heartbreaking choices.
Cathy and Frank handle the wrinkle in their marriage by trying to iron it away. The kids may not know, but the Whitakers’ maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), possibly gets the flow, based on the remarkable sting and compassion she conveys. Cathy encourages Frank to start psychotherapy since she is desperate to keep the marriage together.
The couple visits Dr. Bowman (James Rebhorn) who puts Frank on an uncertain de-homosexualization regimen. But their world is a breakdown, despite Cathy’s best efforts to serve as the shock absorber for Frank’s verbal abuse and alcoholism. She even wears her pliable, golden bouffant hairstyle to hide the bruises from her snippy best friend, Eleonor Fine (a vinegary Patricia Clarkson).
Where the widower Raymond is typically at work, Cathy usually loses her composure outside the house. She grows infatuated. Later, at an all-white art exhibit, he wows her with an analysis of a Miro canvas. He explains that modern art can be broken down into colors and shapes that are meant to be transcended.
The film raises a quiet but forceful question about the difference in how race and sexuality are perceived. Frank can hide who he is, but there are no closets for Raymond. He’s proud and almost kind. But as we witness when he takes Cathy to a local juke joint, he’s not without a point of view. Raymond is the more honest man in Cathy’s life, and she’s fascinated enough to risk the social quarantine that accompanies the attraction
Moore was absolutely captivating on the film. She displays luscious, human warmth which never seen from her. Her shortcoming as a performer sometimes is that she seems as pretentious. The lady is a world-class emoter.
The film does allow the development of character and narrative on a level which may permit some pleasure, but there is an aloofness to it which refuses genuine emotional empathy with the characters. The performances are quite strong. Julianne Moore holds the centre very easily in a delicate characterization which develops as it goes.
She is superbly matched by Dennis Haysbert, who is equally quietly effective. Dennis Quaid plays a character with more expressive dimensions, and plays it very well. Yet the very fact that we are made aware that the film is out to deconstruct social norms instead of this being something we find out as we go means that it is difficult to approach the film as straight narrative or to involve ourselves with these characters on an unreconstructed, non-ironic plane.
The film yields less entertainment on this level than the average soap opera. Its foregrounded concerns with race, sexuality, and the collapse of the family seem too pointed for a workaday sentimental movie. All of this merely signals that there is more going on than would seem obvious on the surface.
“Far From Heaven” is well worth seeing if you do approach it with the appropriate attitude. It is this very symbiosis between form and content which makes this movie such a worthwhile experience. The film really needs to be seen and thought of in a larger context. It even gives you all of the information you need if you just look for it. Nothing passes without notice, with each element of plot or visual design feeding into the behavior of the characters in ways which signal the interrelationships between them.
The audience simply has to pay attention to the delicacy with which it has all been constructed and assembled. Deconstruction is easy, but Haynes has not contented himself with simply breaking down these elements and leaving them disconnected and robbed of context. He does not shy away from meaningful storytelling, or meaningful filmmaking; and, indeed, the two depend on one another for effect. In reconstructing the melodrama, the film exposes its conventions and subjects them to analysis by both the filmmaker and audience. “Far From Heaven” is a subtle and intricate work of cinematic art.