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Far From Heaven (November 8/02)

One of the most talked about movies from this year's Toronto Film Festival was Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven. Haynes, best known for off-kilter movies like Safe and Velvet Goldmine, has crafted a film that looks and feels like a genuine 1950s melodrama (right down to the gigantic opening titles), and inserted some decidedly contemporary themes (homosexuality and interracial romance being the two most prominent). But it never quite moves beyond the level of novelty; it's an interesting experiment, and not much else.

Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, a prototypical '50s suburban housewife armed with all the usual amenities (including a seemingly wonderful family, complete with white-picket fence, and an appropriate standing within the community). Her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), epitomizes the sort of hard-working, yet easy-going family man that was ever present in the movies and television shows of that decade. But Cathy's perfect world begins to crumble when she catches Frank making out with a man. His homosexuality is thought to be a disease, which leads to Frank visiting a psychiatrist in the hopes of being cured. Meanwhile, Cathy finds a friend in her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) - a relationship that, even though purely platonic, instantly causes rumors and concern among Cathy's neighbors.

As virtually every other critic has noted, the style and look of Far From Heaven echoes the films of Douglas Sirk from the 1950s. Sirk movies like All That Heaven Allows and Written On The Wind specialized in melodrama and lush cinematography - both of which essentially fuel Far From Heaven. But the difference is, Haynes tackles issues that were completely verboten back in Sirk's time. For a while, though, the film really does feel like an unearthed Sirk flick - until Haynes starts sending in the more subversive elements. It's certainly quite interesting for a while, with Cathy forced to completely re-examine her life, but there's a lack of cohesiveness here that prevents the movie from ever becoming completely engrossing.

After the major plotlines are laid out for us - Frank's homosexuality and Cathy's relationship with Raymond - the movie essentially coasts along on the supposed shocking nature of these threads. There's no story here; Far From Heaven becomes entirely about the downward spiral of Julianne Moore's character. The only real question becomes, will Cathy find happiness and redemption? But really, it takes far too long to arrive at that answer - and it's hard to care at that point.

Still, it's hard not to appreciate on some level what Haynes has done. Far From Heaven, if nothing else, is always fascinating just to look at. From the tacky parlor room in Frank and Cathy's house to the absurdly over-the-top fashions sported by the various characters, this is clearly a movie that's done its homework. And in that sense, Far From Heaven clearly evokes a very specific period in American history. Haynes is obviously trying to show that this idealized decade was rife with intolerance and bigotry, but he never really takes the material much further than that.

Far From Heaven is the sort of film the term "ambitious failure" was coined for. But some fantastic acting by the three leads will provide at least some entertainment, even if the movie never quite becomes the searing indictment Haynes so desperately wants it to be.

out of