Far From Heaven
review by Carrie Gorringe, 20 September 2002

27th Toronto International Film Festival

Redolent with motifs and themes from the '50s melodramas of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, the remake of Imitation of Life), Far From Heaven depicts the life of an upper-class family who is about to face social disaster.  On the surface (isn't that always the way?), Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) seem like the perfect 1950s couple.  She:  perky and perfectly coiffed, always happy to sip a couple of pre-dinner daquiris and dish dirt with the girls, especially with her best friend Eleonor Fine (Patricia Clarkson).  He:  the epitome of the classically silent, rugged and handsome American husband, and a good provider, courtesy of his executive position at the Magnatech Corporation;  the Whitakers so epitomize the concept of the ideal family (complete with two children – a boy and a girl, naturally) that the corporation features them in its advertising campaign.   Then, as might be expected, something goes horribly wrong that rips the façade right off Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech's bucolic life in suburban Connecticut.  Frank, it turns out, has a secret life, and the consequences reverberate beyond the walls of the Whittaker home.  Under the stress of her husband's revelations, Cathy allows her ultra-liberal (by then-contemporary standards) opinions to lead her into making decisions that threaten to undermine more than her social standing and that of others. She befriends her African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert), and the line between doing good deeds and her personal feelings begins to blur very dangerously.

Director Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore have worked together before, on her breakthrough role in Safe (1995), a trenchant satire on cults and the solipsistic lifestyles of the '90s.   In Heaven, Haynes showcases her considerable talent with ease.  As in her previous film, World Traveller, Moore is required to carry the film's emotional weight, and here she does this brilliantly.  As the film moves from broad satire to serious drama, Moore's sensibilities shift with exquisite subtlety; she glides imperceptivity  through the process. She infuses Cathy with just the right mixture of winsomeness, sensuality and vulnerability from frame one and never falters throughout (it's truly an Oscar-caliber piece of work).  For his part, Haysbert conveys a sense of quiet strength without slipping into a parody of the '50s concept of the "noble Negro" (à la Sidney Poitier in any number of Stanley Kramer productions). The overall "look" of the film is stunningly and uncannily accurate (Haynes has stated that he and production designer Mark Friedberg – the latter was responsible for the spot-on historical 1970's details in The Ice Storm – combed through back issues of House & Garden to arrive at this level of historical authenticity).  Unfortunately, the script doesn't possess this same attention to detail in terms of effective plotting:  through the transition from broad satire to what is, in the end, overly simplistic, obvious and ineffective social comment, the film shifts gears clumsily and too drastically, as if in an attempt to make up time after lingering too long on the atmosphere.  What should have been a smooth transition between satire and melodrama isn't, making the film's final half seem unconvincing.  Only Moore and Haysbert's performances provide enough chemistry to drag the film through to its pat and all-too predictable ending.  As an homage to Douglas Sirk's oeuvre, it falls flat. Despite all the overblown dialogue and situations, the hallmark of a Sirkian melodrama was its underlying belief that there remained real people with real issues of loss and vulnerability who had something to lose; Sirk never appeared to be patronizing its audience.  In this case of Heaven, all that remains is tiresome tragedy and the sense that fine actors have been cast in roles unworthy of their talents (Sirk would never have allowed his lead character to have been treated so shabbily, as Cathy is).  The overall result makes it appear as though Haynes has abandoned his usual sureness of hand and doesn't have much confidence in his material.  Far From Heaven is a film that strays too far from its lofty ambitions and becomes far from persuasive.

Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:



Written and
Directed by:

Todd Haynes

Julianne Moore
Dennis Quaid
Dennis Haysbert
Patricia Clarkson
Viola Davis
James Rebhorn
Bette Henritze
Michael Gaston
Ryan Ward
Lindsay Andretta
Jordan Puryear
Kyle Timothy Smith

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate
for children under 13.







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