For his latest project, maverick writer/director Todd Haynes (“Velvet Goldmine”) has chosen to create a film in the style of a weepy 1950s melodrama. He has done it elegantly, effectively duplicating a mostly abandoned style of filmmaking while simultaneously telling a heartfelt, emotional story. Either trick would have been neat, and he’s done them both.
He has particularly followed the example of director Douglas Sirk, whose films “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and “Imitation of Life” (1959) served as prototypes for “Far From Heaven.” For viewers unfamiliar with Sirk’s work, know that they had a lush artificiality about them, were shot on studio backlots rather than on location, and were vivid, colorful films to look at. Tragic romance was a recurring theme.
“Far From Heaven” is set in 1957 in upscale Hartford, Conn. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is a faithful, doting housewife and part-time socialite with a successful businessman husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), and two energetic children. Her life is the version of perfection we see in movies and TV shows from the 1950s.
Frank, however, is a closeted homosexual who begins acting on his impulses. On top of that, Cathy develops a friendship with their gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who is black — a fact that doesn’t sit well, even in a progressive Northern town like Hartford.
Neither of those issues — homosexuality or interracial romances — were explored with much sensitivity or detail in the 1950s, and part of what makes “Far From Heaven” so brilliant is that it completely buys into its premise: This is a ’50s film, dealing with things the way they WOULD have been dealt with in those days, had they been dealt with at all.
When Frank visits a doctor (James Rebhorn) who promises to help him “cure” his homosexuality using a “modern, scientific approach,” we know the approach is probably actually barbaric and ineffective. We smile a little at the naivete of the 1950s — and then immediately are engrossed again by the characters and their plights. The tone is not ironic; it is sincere.
It would be easy for the tragedy of the story to be lost in the stylized acting — for the film to turn into a soulless gimmick — but Haynes’ top-notch cast avoids that pitfall gracefully. Julianne Moore plays her leading lady so beautifully, with such honest, heart-wrenching emotion, that it seems impossible not to nominate her for an Oscar. Dennis Haysbert — the president on TV’s “24” — is powerfully dignified as Raymond, and though Frank’s homosexuality is pushed to the background of the film for a while, Dennis Quaid’s performance is quite moving.
The details of the film are equally delightful, from the pitch-perfect dialogue — it may not be how real people spoke in the ’50s, but it’s certainly how movie characters spoke — to Cathy’s cadre of gossiping-housewife friends, to the flowery fonts used in the opening title sequence.
Edward Lachman’s vibrant cinematography adds to the film’s dewey tone, but has some subtlety, too. Most of Cathy and Frank’s conversations take place in darkened rooms, in stark contrast to the bright color that pervades the rest of the film, which looks for all the world like it was shot in 1957.
What is most important, however, is the story, which is rooted in the attitudes of the 1950s but which resonates today. Haynes has tapped into that most tragic of ideas — forbidden love — and mined some excellent melodrama from it. This is one of the year’s best films.
A (1 hr., 47 min.; )