FAR FROM HEAVEN
(director/writer: Todd Haynes; cinematographer: Edward Lachman; editor: James Lyons; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker), Dennis Quaid (Frank Whitaker), Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan), Patricia Clarkson (Eleanor Fine), Michael Gaston (Stanley Fine), Viola Davis (Sybil), James Rebhorn (Dr. Bowman), Jordan Puryear (Sarah Deagan), Lindsay Andretta (Janice Whitaker), Ryan Ward (David Whitaker), Celia Weston (Mona Lauder); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Christine Vachon; USA Films/Focus Features; 2002)
“The film can be regaled alone just for its magnificently rich color tones.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven” is, perhaps, a few steps away from being a perfect film. It does a more than fair job in updating and embellishing the fluidity found in Douglas Sirk’s brilliant 1950’s melodrama “All That Heaven Allows.” What it does especially well is tell its pastiche story visually through its superb camerawork highlighting the richly different colors to complement the mood of the unfolding dramatics. The colors act as a litmus test for mood as things change from golden hues to icy blues and there are dark interior shots when conflicts develop that the main characters have repressed and can’t handle, and thereby all the wealth and external beauty that surround the main characters no longer can make up for their inward disappointments. The film after being initially drenched in a robust deluge of red maple leafs builds in tension until its tearful conclusion in the spring where only a few white dogwood flowerings signify any optimism in the air, as everything that was seen initially as nature’s fulfillment has been unrealized in the course of events that take place in the changing seasons as the heroine’s world comes crashing down with a thud.
Sirk was known for making weepy women’ pictures, and Haynes (“Safe“/”Poison“/ “Velvet Goldmine“) follows suit and keeps the same focus on his central female character. “Heaven” also ups the ante from Sirk’s dramatization as Haynes presents three ongoing critical situations for his heroine Julianne Moore, the star actress in his “Safe,” to juggle instead of the one in the Sirk film. In Sirk’ film, the young gardener and wealthy older widow have an affair that caused the small town gossips to have a field day, as they laced into the couple with their hatred for breaking a social tabu of mixing classes and the heroine chooses their acceptance over love. Here the crisis explodes when the seemingly ideal marriage is exposed as a sham because hubby discovers he’s gay and her status in the community is undercut when she crosses social boundaries and befriends her husky young Negro gardener. Also, in the background, the subtle racism in town parallels the civil rights movement in the south and the conflict in Little Rock over integration as seen on TV. It is shown that racism is a country-wide thing and not just confined to one part of the country. The film is able to operate freely without the old Hollywood Production Codes of the 1950s and thereby is brimming over with a charge of sexuality and an undertone of repression and a restraint that befits those cautious Eisenhower years. The film takes note that there is a signaling of an impending change to come over the land first in civil rights and much later in gay rights, as it lays siege on the so-called ‘golden years’ of Hollywood and debunks the myths of how everything was so good back then. What the young director stubs his toes on, is that there are too many heavy-handed and contrived scenes that become irksome when he makes his points once too often instead of following Sirk’s lead and letting the story work itself out more naturally by trusting the viewer to see it all for themselves rather than having everything spoon-fed.
“Heaven” opens to a wonderful cascade of autumn perfection of splendid yellows, oranges and reds from the maple and oak trees in 1957 upper-class suburban Hartford, Connecticut, as a crane tracking shot swoops across the rich landscape and the viewer is magically transported into the idyllic New England setting and onto the luxurious split-level ranch home of the Whitakers–the American Dream personified–as the housewife drives up to her drive-way in her status blue-and-white colored Buick station wagon where she deposits her precocious little girl (Lindsay Andretta) after picking her up from her ballet lessons and orders her bicycle riding son (Ryan Ward) to take in the groceries and to refrain from saying shucks while she chats with her best friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson) about their evening cocktail party. Eleanor just arrives in her Buick coupe (a model which might signify she doesn’t have children but has money). The pretty redhead Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is married to the successful TV sales executive, Frank (Dennis Quaid). Also, on the scene for the nuclear family is the perfect Negro maid Sybil (Viola Davis), someone a white family can bank on for unswerving loyalty and someone manufactured from those 1950 sitcom TV shows but nevertheless a very real person. It’s no coincidence that she reminds one of the selfless maid Juanita Moore played in Sirk’s masterpiece “Imitation of Life,” perhaps the best film of the 1950s to expose the social racial dilemma in America. She’s also the most genuine and the most honestly dignified and realized one in the film. I learned more about what this film was trying to say about race relations by observing her characterization than I did from the role of the African American star who was supposed to provide that look but ended up being a Sidney Poitier Hollywood caricature instead of the genuine article. In any case, the Whitakers are so beautiful and smug that you might want to gag at this point; but, if you are cynical that such middle-class bourgeois bliss could exist, all you have to do is wait for the shoe to fall.
A society reporter conducts an interview and a photographer takes photos of Cathy in her richly decorated house for a local story about the admired couple everyone in town is proud of, as she’s writing one of those “behind every great man there’s the perfect wife” stories. The snobbish elderly woman reporter respectfully refers to them as Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech–the name of Frank’s downtown workplace. While the interview is going on, a large Negro man pops his head around in the garden and Cathy doesn’t know who he is and fights back her fear to go out to confront him. It turns out that he’s the son of her regular gardener who died recently, but she doesn’t know that because Negroes have been invisible to her all her life and she doesn’t even think they exist in town. But she acts friendly with the gentle and articulate Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), and the reporter mentions in her article of what a friend to the Negroes Mrs. Whitaker is. She will later on be recruited to do volunteer work for the NAACP, even though she is not political and remains naive about race relations.
The major crisis begins when Cathy finds her husband in the arms of another man and tries to get him to a shrink in time to mend his ways. Dr. Bowman (James Rebhorn) says the chances are slim of getting Frank back to a ‘normal’ heterosexual relationship, but if the patient is willing then it’s worth a shot to go through a heavy dose of analysis through his “aversion therapy.” Frank’s immediate attitude is that it’s despicable that he’s queer and that he’s going to lick it. Cathy is the typical housewife of the 1950s dependent on the financial support of her husband and will do anything to keep up appearances, as she forgives him for his indiscretion hoping that the shrink could find a cure and there would be nothing anymore to upset her seemingly perfect life. But her despondent and alcohol driven hubby can’t face himself anymore and in a moment of despair and self-loathing, he accidentally strikes and bruises her. She keeps mum about that also, not even telling her best friend. The only one that Cathy can speak to freely and who is intelligent enough to understand her overwhelming domestic problems is the widower gardener, who is raising his sweet young daughter Sarah (Puryear) with fatherly love and by hard work is trying to build up a business in the community. The most interesting place he pops up to meet her is in the local museum exhibiting all those Picassos and Mirós, art work that an effete New York art dealer has organized for Eleanor and her society ladies. Anything arty is associated with being fruity by the ladies and the most striking barb is when the dealer’s called by Eleanor a “wickedly successful Gotham art dealer,” which allows us to see in an amusing way how superficial these elites are when judging others. Cathy is at first surprised to see Raymond there and then draws the attention of her gasping catty lady friends when she gravitates to her Negro, who is attending the art exhibition with his 11-year-old daughter. Negroes were not supposed to play in the white man’s world of culture back then in Hartford, according to the elite women’s group. When Raymond’s with her, he can’t resist the temptation to show off his knowledge of modern art by lecturing to her on these current artists and how they have scraped away the usual religious art symbols from their paintings and have now boiled it all down to a matter of geometrical shapes and sharp colors. The Miró painting viewed by them fits in with the film’s theme, as it’s titled: “The Beautiful Bird Revealing the Unknown to a Pair of Lovers.” This painting gives them hope that they can find happiness together by just opening up and acting civil with one another by communicating, and thereby have their racial differences become a non-factor. They are the only ones in the film that make an attempt to really communicate with each other. Raymond has passed the color test and now that he’s acceptable as an equal in her eyes, she seeks him out for a seemingly chaste relationship even though she’s bursting inside for a sexual one. He will pop up out of her garden whenever it’s convenient in the story for them to get together, and this will result in many awkward meetings which rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed like a contrived way to meet and the visual image was mindful of a native coming out of the jungle. I would think Haynes could have come up with a more graceful way for them to continue their affair, as the only racial stereotyping that was missing from those scenes was a beating of drums.
After one such awkward meeting a local gossip (Weston) sees Cathy go to a black restaurant with the gardener and she spreads it around to her set of friends. As a result she’s ostracized for her interracial friendship and her children are shunned by the other children, and she becomes a social pariah to all except for Eleanor who doesn’t believe her friend is like that and is still friendly until in the last scene where she believes there is actually something going on between them and also turns her back on her. When her husband confronts her about her Negro, she drops her gardener as if he were a weed and tries to rekindle her loveless marriage.
The seasons change, but Frank can’t change who he is. An attempt is made to regain their former happiness as he looks over her Christmas gift of travel brochures and chooses a holiday in Miami over one in Cuba where Fidel is fighting a revolutionary war with the Batista government. In Miami he meets the man he falls in love with at a New Year’s Eve celebration at their hotel and the married couple return to her now dreary Hartford house where she not only learns of this affair, but dishearteningly learns that some white boys brutally threw a rock at Raymond’s daughter. The melodramatics pile up and the color tone darkens as all the confrontational scenes are shot in the interior darkness. When Frank divorces her, she goes to Raymond for solace. He tells her he’ll never be able to run a business in this town again and that he’s going to Baltimore to start life anew. When she asks if she can visit him, he tells her it’s all over– that he doesn’t have the will or energy to see it through, as he says: “I’m not sure that would be a good idea.”
This is a film that exemplifies excellent craftsmanship and boldly has an eye out for detail in its costumes and art design that is unerring in setting up this period piece with an accurate look while the story also establishes a projection of that period’s values. “Heaven” remains an intelligent and worthy film but one that can’t climb boundaries other than the ones that Sirk paved out beforehand. It still holds to the theme that one can’t find love when one is so screwed up that one doesn’t know what love is, and it also points out that none of the characters could communicate with one another. Raymond could never get up enough courage to tell Cathy he loves her and that he doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks. She could never tell him she loves him and that she will give up her way of life to be with him. The gossipers represent the evil there is in the world, who only act as negations. Frank is the most twisted and tortured character, but seemingly survives when he chooses his inward desires over his once pressing need to fit into society; and, his decision seems the most hopeful notwithstanding that the obstacles he will be up against are tremendous–because having a homosexual relation in 1958 could have far reaching consequences. Though not a perfect film, the rich themes remain absorbing and the performances were intelligently accomplished, though the three main characters are artificial constructions. The great work of cinematographer Edward Lachman provides the film with an unforgettably magnificent look, while Elmer Bernstein’s tear-jerking background music gives the film its proper mood. The film’s success comes about because there is so much feeling and intelligence in it; it raises thought-provoking ideas to consider long afterwards. The film can be regaled alone just for its magnificently rich color tones. It can appeal to both a mass and aesthetic audience, though I’m afraid by having a limited theater showing it can unfairly only reach an art-house audience. Sirk’s films played to a mass audience and were reasonably popular and well-received, and only later did film critics and filmmakers such as Fassbinder extol the virtues of a Sirk film and he became discovered by the arthouse crowd.
REVIEWED ON 12/1/2002 GRADE: A –