Movie Review: Far From Heaven
Director: Todd Haynes
Reviewed: 17 July 2014
I admired Todd Haynes's 2002 film Far From Heaven, but I did not love it. Perhaps I do not know the Douglas Sirk films that he is so astutely paying homage to, but I know the type. He seeks to rip the facade off of the perfect life of the 1950's and examine sexuality, power, agency and conformity. His artistry is admirable, and Haynes has proven himself to be a master at modulating costumes and colors. Julianne Moore looks like the quintessential mother figure from any movie or television show of the era that I have seen. She plays Cathy Whitaker, the perfect mother and wife, whose life quickly begins to disintegrate around her. Within the context of the story, Cathy is trapped. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) feels compelled to have a double-life and get away with it, and inside of her large home with her two children, Cathy feels heartbreakingly alone. Her growing connection with her African-American gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) has a light but transgressive quality that sends waves across their idyllic Connecticut community. The more I thought about Far From Heaven, the more I thought about Ibsen's A Doll's House with its images of imprisonment and desire for female empowerment. Haynes throws conflict at these characters, but his story moves within the limitations of the time period. A climactic moment must just be that: a moment of recognition and possibility, but within the world of these characters, nothing more can be. I found the ending somewhat frustrating, but perhaps that is Haynes's point. Cathy Whitaker found herself constrained on all sides within her marriage, her social status, and her community. To break free may be what a modern audience expects.
The cast is excellent, and Moore delivers a strong performance of great interiority amidst the posturing and conventions that must be upheld as a housewife of this time period. Her best moments come when her character finds herself face-to-face with uncertainty. Quaid and Haysbert do fine work as well, and the film has a stagy quality with its small but focused cast. The bright colors of the transforming leaves hint at Haynes's message that transformation for this society is coming soon; the seasons are a changing, but the change does not come quick enough, and there are many hurt and excluded and powerless in this type of society. We see Cathy nudging ahead, uncertainly pushing forward on beliefs about race and gender that will eventually sow the seeds of the Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements to come. One cannot help but wonder what happens to her after that final shot. Todd Haynes remains a director with an eye for composing a shot, handling color and light with ease, and Far From Heaven, though perhaps less powerful for me because of my ignorance of its references and genre, has a well-crafted and thoughtful atmosphere.