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Far From heaven

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Far From heaven

Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid
Director: Todd Haynes
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 107 Minutes
Release Date: November 2002
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Dennis Haysbert, James Rebhorn

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Americans under the age of fifty know about the 1950's only from what they've read or heard from their parents or from the movies. They're likely to think of that decade as a conventional one, a man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit era, when the American dream was a white picket fence, a dog, a comfortable, stable life and bad music. To a degree this impression is correct. There's quite a difference between the Age of Eisenhower and our own Modern Times. Or is there? Todd Haynes ("Poison," "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine") was, like most Americans today, born post- fifties and yet affords us a major exploration of the dark currents underlying the decade's surfaces.

Featuring Julianne Moore, attired spot-on by designer Sandy Powell with a hair style that's more flattering than that worn by Amy Irving for "Tuck Everlasting," Haynes's latest work with his favorite actress takes us into the Hartford, Connecticut suburbs of 1957 (actually filmed in Bayonne and other parts of New Jersey) to show us that while the outside world can well envy the wealth that gives its principal character a style of life that most of the world would die for, trouble brews when romantic dreams can overpower even the most superficially fortuitous existence.

At first we think that Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) and her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) are living the American dream albeit one that is surprisingly without a dog. With one son(Ryan Ward) always eager to get his pop's attention, an obedient daughter (Lindsay Andretta) and a loyal maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), they enjoy the trappings of wealth, made possible by Frank's job heading the Hartford office of a major corporation. His social life comes from playing ball with other executives while hers encompasses the social whirl of catered affairs and tete-a-tetes with her best friend, Eleanor Fine (Patricia Clarkson). Lives take a sudden turn south in the family unit when Cathy's husband's "working late at the office" turns out to be assignations with another male while Cathy herself feels emotionally drawn to her black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). While Frank pledges to "fight against" the "deviance" of homosexuality by consulting a psychiatrist (James Rebhorn), his little secret remains with him and his wife. Society comes down hard, however, on Cathy, who is discovered by a malicious member of her social circle entering a restaurant with her black gardener.

Haynes's movie is not simply a story about the fifties: more important, it is filmed in the style used by big studios who often shot melodramas in their lots and employed actors like Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Jane Wyman, Dorothy Malone, Robert Stack, and Agnes Moorehead. "Far from Heaven" is splashed with so much color that we're reminded of John Waters, and yet despite what a few critics have said, I don't believe Haynes means to be campy. He is, however, following the paths trod by the theatrical genius Douglas Sirk, a product of the Germany of the twenties and thirties, who catered to an audience love for melodramatic stories. Sirk, like Haynes, put great care into his sets and clothes. Both studied bourgeois society and both cast light on what they considered the lifelessness and hypocrisy within that class. The women are beautiful but anxious. They realize that social conventions smother love and lovers. No matter that the material in "Far from Heaven," like Sirk's own palettes, are considered trite and soapy. The movie audience of the fifties and, to an extent that going to the theaters today, depends on sensation, glamour, sexuality, fear, and danger; at least those who are not now addicted to computer graphics and Bruckheimer blockbusting.

Moore and Quaid have a genuine chemistry. We see how Cathy is bound by social conventions to be her husband's companion, to entertain guests, and to have no real life of her own. It's no wonder that when she begins to talk to her gardener, when she discovers to her amazement at a modern art gallery that he knows more about Joan Miro than she and for the first time looks at him as a real human being, something in her awakens. Or that Frank, having finally given in to his homosexual urges, is willing to chuck away his entire bourgeois life, to give up his wife, his kids and probably his high-power job to take up with a man with whom he has fallen in love (though that "love" with a younger guy may not last the season).

Aside from the captivating style, from the way that Haynes has captured the mood of the 1950s, I think he wants us to ponder whether we've really changed so much. Yes, things are different now on a surface level. I went to high school in the early fifties and did not see a single African-American in any class. After college in Massachusetts (where African-Americans were almost as scarce), I taught in a high school in Brooklyn, New York and throughout my career in that particular place did not have single black student. Today that same school has done a volte force, going from 100% white to 97% black. We no longer look upon blacks and whites walking together, even holding hands, as did the gossipy women and even the men on the street in "Far from Heaven." Nevertheless only a Pollyanna would say there is gender equality today or racial harmony and, if you judge not only from violent attacks against gays but from the insulting commentary that passes the lips of so-called straights, we haven't progressed that much at all. With the striking set designs, the classic performances of Quaid, Moore and Haysbert, and a refusal to fall into the trap of campiness, "Far from Heaven" may at first distance us by its fifties-style of filmmaking but draws us moderns right into the pain and conflicts of its characters.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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