“Far From Heaven” is a film that requires a brief lecture on ’50s melodramas before viewing. That’s not to say Todd Haynes’ latest film can’t be enjoyed on a casual level, but the real joy of “Heaven” lies in its immaculate recreation of the work of director Douglas Sirk, one of the most popular filmmakers of his era. “Heaven” is an ode to Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” and “Imitation of Life” among others, domestic soap operas that starred the likes of Rock Hudson and Lana Turner. Haynes’ lavish production design mirrors Sirk to a tee, but what makes his film so fascinating is its lack of modernization in the way it discusses issues of discrimination.
The year is 1957. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, “Boogie Nights”) is the typical American housewife of the ’50s, complete with two kids who look like they could be the offspring of Ozzie and Harriet and a successful husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid, “The Rookie”). But it turns out Cathy and Frank are far from Ozzie and Harriet; Frank has been having an affair with a young man and Cathy has found true happiness, but not sex relations, with her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert, “24”).
The events in “Far From Heaven” unravel slowly, just like in a Sirk film, allowing the audience to take in all of the glorious visuals. Each shot is painted with a palette of rich colors, from the changing autumn leaves of Connecticut to the plush interiors of the Whitaker family home. The camera gracefully moves from the treetops down to the characters on the ground, straight out of a scene from “Written on the Wind.”
Homosexuality is handled in “Far From Heaven” like it was in the ’50s, as a disease that can be cured and treated. Frank admits, “I know it’s wrong because it makes me feel despicable.” The changing social climate of 1957 is further illustrated in the budding interracial relationship between Cathy and Raymond, and before long the whole town is in an uproar over their friendship. Moore, Quaid and Haysbert give tremendous performances that fuel the emotional firepower of the film.
One of the more striking features of “Far From Heaven” is its sweeping score by veteran screen composer Elmer Bernstein. The man who created some of the most memorable soundtracks of the ’50s and ’60s, “The Magnificent Seven” and “To Kill a Mocking Bird” come to mind, is, at 80 years old, once again in top form. Bernstein is able to evoke the elements of Frank Skinner’s best compositions, Sirk’s long-time collaborator, while fleshing out the music with his own elegant touches.
Todd Haynes is arguably the most daring American director working today. From his audacious debut, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” (a biography made with plastic dolls rather than actors), Haynes has always been a controversial figure in independent filmmaking. His feature films “Safe” and “Velvet Goldmine” have won him much attention and praise for their unique visual style and well written scripts, and “Heaven” is no exception.
“Far From Heaven” is perhaps 2002’s most ambitious film. Writer/director Haynes has perfectly recaptured the atmosphere of the ’50s melodrama without tampering with the formula. In doing so, Haynes examines the social undertones of not only Sirk’s filmography, but also the foundation of the ’50s nuclear family.