Far from Heaven is not something I can recommend to everyone, but if you like melodrama, see this film. The movie is made like a 1950s melodrama, but goes a little bit farther in terms of the themes it deals with than a Hollywood film in the ’50s could. I can see it inducing some eye-rolling from a modern audience, but still, it’s marvelously shot and acted, and made with a lot of heart.
Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) are the heads of a perfect stereotypical 1950s nuclear family. Cathy runs the house, hosts parties, scolds the children for saying things like “aw geez,” and makes everything look perfect. Frank goes to work and then comes home from work. Because everything is so perfect, you know something must be wrong, and boy is it ever. Wrong in terms of 1950s conventional morality that is; Frank is a closeted homosexual and Cathy isn’t racist. Neither of things would be an issue today, but in the film, they cause all sorts of problems for the Whitakers.
We are all very familiar with the type of standards the Whitakers have to live up to. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t heartbreaking or instructive to see these things played out onscreen. The thing that struck me the most was that everyone in the town was watching Cathy like a hawk, but the only ones who concerned themselves with Frank’s homosexuality were Frank and Cathy. No one else outside the family knew or even suspected, ever. Cathy doesn’t betray their family “problem” in the slightest. However, when Cathy is friendly with the black gardener (Dennis Haysbert), everyone freaks out, including Frank. It is more public I suppose, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the incredible double standard going on here. It’s not surprising in the least, unfortunately, but it stuck out to me nonetheless.
The whole film, with cinematography by Edward Lachman, is fully realized as an over elaborate and artificial place that can be both beautiful and terrifying. The strong, bright colors (both in the lighting and the production design) can either be seen as breathtakingly beautiful or overwhelmingly oppressive. The nighttime scenes are the most indicative of the latter, playing into Frank’s secrets. Otherwise, the film is shot much like a 1950s Hollywood melodrama by the likes of Douglas Sirk or Nicholas Ray.
Though this is the type of film that I love, I couldn’t help but be bored by a couple of moments. I’m not even sure why it happened, but there were a couple of times in the movie where I just checked out; I just couldn’t be bothered paying attention anymore. In between the genuinely heartfelt or heartbreaking moments, there are sometimes meaningless lulls. I can only attribute this to sticking perhaps a little too closely to the 1950s material that inspired the film; maybe stripping it down a little more and getting rid of some unnecessary scenes would have helped the picture move along better.
The film overall is a very interesting watch, and Julianne Moore’s performance cannot be praised enough. She plays a character that is supposed to be a stereotype, then she has to bring real feeling to this character and have her break out partially, but not fully, from the stereotype. The lighting and cinematography is gorgeous, and along with the production design, fully creates a 1950s dreamworld that probably never really existed outside of the imaginations of the Americans that lived through it. This must have been quite an usual film to see in 2002, and it doesn’t completely work, but comes pretty damn close.
“I’ve learned my lesson about mixing in other worlds. I’ve seen the sparks fly. All kinds.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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