Prior to last year’s lesbian romance Carol (another film that tackled taboo subject matter in a period setting whilst making an homage to the classic era melodrama director Douglas Sirk), director Todd Haynes first did so many years beforehand and with much greater success in the highly underrated Far from Heaven. More of a directly pointed update from the template laid by All That Heaven Allows than a general callback to the filmmaking sensibilities of the 1950’s, it takes on both subjects of interracial relationships and homosexual repression in ways that would’ve been unthinkable in the time period the film is set in. It offers all of these themes while wrapped up in a rather handsome spectacle, and remains Haynes’ strongest directorial outing thus far.
The film takes place in 1950’s suburban Connecticut and centers around a housewife named Cathy Whitaker (played wonderfully by Julianne Moore). On the surface, she appears to have the idyllic female lifestyle at the time; loving husband Frank (Dennis Quaid, in one of his best roles to date), two darling children, and a bountiful circle of friends all content with being stuck in the exact same scenario. But her meager small-town existence is soon upended when she befriends her African American gardener, a soft spoken and humble man named Raymond, played by State Farm commercial alumni Dennis Haysbert. While the two of them see no harm in engaging in a little fling on the side – especially when Cathy discovered that her hubby is a closeted homosexual that’s been seeing younger men on the side – their surrounding social groups don’t feel the same way, and everything begins to unravel around the pair, affecting both their lives in similarly destructive fashions.
From a purely visual standpoint, Far from Heaven is completely dazzling. Todd Haynes recalls the brilliant, vibrant Technicolor of Douglas Sirk’s heyday and evokes a bygone era of classical melodrama, made complete with a luscious and subtly melancholic score by Elmer Bernstein. Props to director of photography Edward Lachman (who Haynes also collaborated with on Carol) for enriching every frame of this film with a distinctive, but never distracting color palette adding both a richness to the proceedings, but also delving into another level of the self-referential “melodrama” elements at hand.
Apart from the more immediate pleasures of the pitch-perfect visuals and soundscape, Far from Heavenalso expands upon thematic elements that the likes of Douglas Sirk could have only ever hinted at over the course of their entire careers. All of this would be very well on its own, but modern deconstructions of the troubled societal norms of decades past have been commonplace in our culture for quite some time. What makes Far from Heaven special in this regard is the level of empathy and compassion offered towards the characters and their situations. The characters aren’t just props to get across some heavy-handed moral about tolerance and acceptance that a 21st century audience (hopefully) already agrees with – they’re real people dealing with real issues, and their struggles resonate a lot more due to the marriage of strong screenwriting and a talented ensemble cast, which allows for each major character to register as a real human being, and not mere plot devices existing only to deliver a message.
On the whole, Far from Heaven is an essential and criminally overlooked masterpiece of early 21st century filmmaking. As a pure cinematic exercise it fares extraordinarily well, but luckily it transcends mere empty homage and stands tall as a beautifully made and enormously moving experience. Plus, if a certain orange-haired, highly intolerant businessman wins the United States Presidency this coming November (God forbid), then expect its message of racial tolerance and equality to reach new heights of relevance and timeliness.