The 1950’s was a time of peace and plenty, but it was also a time of conformity. It was especially inconvenient to be female, gay, or black. In “Far From Heaven,” characters struggle with all three.
Writer/director Todd Haynes sets his story not in the world of the 1950’s but in the world of 1950’s movies. It is inspired by the films of Douglas Sirk, whose specialty was stories of women suffering nobly in fabulous clothes, accompanied by Chopin-inspired music on the soundtrack. Sirk, long dismissed as a maker of “women’s movies,” is having something of a renaissance this year. One of his films, “Imitation of Life,” is briefly glimpsed in “8 Mile,” as a character watches a scene about a black girl who is trying to pass as white. “Far From Heaven” is a tribute to Sirk’s “All that Heaven Allows,” in which widow Jane Wyman loses her heart to gardener Rock Hudson.
The world of Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) seems perfect. She lives in a suburban home with her husband and two children and they look like a slightly more stylish version of the family in the Dick and Jane readers. Her home is as immaculate, coordinated, and generic as a furniture showroom. She has gloves to match every outfit, every hair is perfectly curled and sprayed in place, and she wears an apron over her bouffant skirts. Her children call her “Mother” and mind their manners and her black maid wears a starchy apron and calls her ma’am. She spends her days caring for her family, organizing social events for her husband’s company and for the community, and talking to her friends, whose lives all seem exactly like hers. Everyone knows the rules and the rules seem to work.
But the Technicolor burnished leaves of the trees in autumn are about to fall on Cathy’s neatly manicured lawn, signaling decay and, ultimately, renewal. Cathy’s husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) is struggling with his longing for other men and with the self-hatred it engenders. When he is picked up by the police, Cathy believes his story that it was a mistake. But then she decides to bring him dinner when he is working late one night and discovers him kissing another man.
Frank goes to a doctor who is, well, frank about the likelihood of a “cure.” And just as Frank needs an honest relationship, Cathy does, too. She begins to feel drawn to Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), her gardener, who is black. Like the character who inspired him, the gardener played by Rock Hudson in Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” Raymond symbolizes the natural man in an artificial world, and Haysbert (currently seen as the President in television’s “24”) plays him with dignity, warmth, and a subtle magnetism that shows us how Cathy can feel safe enough to allow herself to be drawn to him.
Moore and Quaid, too, give performances of breathtaking sensitivity and courage. But it is not clear whether the movie is set in the 1950’s as a way to show us what Sirk could only hint at about that era or whether it is an attempt to say something about our own. It is tempting to distance ourselves from the problems faced by the people in this movie. They have no context or vocabulary to talk about the disconnect between what they feel and what they are expected to feel. Though the point of view of the movie is sympathetic, it feels distant. While Sirk’s movies can still move me to tears, this movie did not. The meticulous re-creation of the movies of the era, down to the style of the credits and the music by the legendary Elmer Bernstein, feels more elegiac than immediate, more admirable than involving.
Parents should know that the movie deals with mature issues, including bigotry, homosexuality, and adultery. Characters make comments that are anti-Semitic and racist remark. Characters drink and smoke. Frank gets drunk in an attempt to numb the pain he feels about not being true to himself.
Families should talk about why the story is set in the 1950’s and about what has changed. Younger family members may want to know more about the older members’ recollections of that era. Did Raymond and Frank make different choices when it came to what was best for their children? What do those children think about what is going on around them? How will film-makers 50 years from now see today’s movies and what will they pick to pay tribute to?
Families who enjoy this movie should compare it to some of Sirk’s classics, like “All that Heaven Allows,” “The Magnificent Obsession,” and “Imitation of Life.” They might also like some of the other films of that era like “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” “Strangers When We Meet,” and “A Summer Place.”