Far from Heaven (12A)
Written, directed and acted like a 1950s soap opera – and deliberately so – Far from Heaven focuses on the trials and tribulations of a middle class, middle American family in 1950s Connecticut as Todd (Velvet Goldmine) Haynes lifts the lid on the secrets of suburbia.
It has already been warmly received by Stateside audiences, and both Haynes and leading lady Julianne Moore – the core of the film – have received Academy Award nominations, he for best original screenplay and she as best actress.
Both are richly deserved, especially bearing in mind the way the film leaps from the screen and harks back to a better period of movies when storylines and performances mattered more than special effects, hype and the hollow jangle of box office cash registers. And here the story really bites hard.
Behind the façade of the Whitaker family’s perfect picture postcard home is a closet full of skeletons, not least husband Frank’s (Dennis Quaid) latent homosexuality, buried deep beneath his obligations to wife Cathy (Moore) and their kids. Cathy, meanwhile, tries hard to conform to the norms and mores of 1950s American society but finds herself increasingly drawn to hunky, cultured black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert, from TV’s 24). As she and Frank drift further apart, he to the town’s secret gay bars, Cathy finds herself spending more time with Raymond, unwittingly and naively causing quiet outrage and scandal as both the black community and the ladies of the town of Hartford, many of them her friends, tut-tut their disapproval.
Until it slaps her savagely in the face, Cathy is oblivious to the looks and frowns that signal the mood of the ‘good white people’. Raymond, however, is not. Frank, on the other hand, is too busy pursuing a succession of young men to even care.
Far from Heaven is a perfect melodrama, exquisitely moulded by Haynes from the template offered by the films of Douglas Sirk, among them Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession. It offers a ‘50s atmosphere with a modern edge, though Moore, Quaid, Haysbert and Patricia Clarkson (as Cathy’s best friend) act their roles with a foot firmly in the past.
In essence this is a bonafide throwback to those multi-layered dramas of the past, with Haynes carefully but powerfully examining the undercurrent of quiet, unspoken racism that existed in every small US town in the years between the end of the war and the explosion of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
This is a tale of two forbidden loves: gay and inter-racial. It’s very Brief Encounter-esque – all controlled emotions and hidden depths. Only recently have the taboos been lifted, and Far from Heaven puts that whole period under an unforgiving microscope.
It’s all done with looks and frowns. There is nothing overt. Yet the atmosphere of disapproval and barely concealed fury cloaks the film like a mantle of dread, and only Raymond, as played by Haysbert, can see it.
Moore and Quaid take a quantum leap backwards in terms of acting styles as Haynes deconstructs the Whitakers and peels layer after layer away from their marriage. Of course it couldn’t be done without actors of the calibre of Moore and Quaid, with the one burning question being this: why wasn’t Quaid nominated alongside his screen wife?
Star rating: *****