Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Far From Heaven (2002) – The “Perfect” 50’s Wife Also Needs To Be A Brilliant Actress

Written by Todd Haynes
Directed by Todd Haynes

I had never heard the name Douglas Sirk prior to my viewing of the film Far From Heaven. To be more accurate, I hadn’t heard the name prior to my viewing of the film with the commentary by Director Todd Haynes.

Julianne Moore is Cathy Whitaker, a Connecticut housewife in the mid-1950s who seems to have an idyllic existence. She is a beautiful woman with a good-looking husband, Frank (portrayed by Dennis Quaid), living in a perfect house. They have two perfect kids and Frank has a high-paying, demanding job as an ad man at an electronics company, Magnatech. He and his wife are just so darn perfect they are featured in the company’s advertisements.

Cathy’s life consists of catered soirees and trivialities such as hors d’oeuvres. Beneath the surface lies a problem, which comes to light after her husband is arrested for “loitering”. Cathy buys the story that the police have the wrong person. One evening when he’s working late, she brings him dinner and finds him in the embrace of another man.

They seek “treatment” which includes electro-shock therapy. Frank feels incredibly guilty and mortified by the feelings he has. He doesn’t want to ruin his entire life, which is what will happen if he continues to act on these feelings.

Meanwhile, Cathy has befriended the son of her late gardener, Raymond Deacon (Dennis Haysbert). The two have a nice friendship going. He also happens to be black. At an art show, she happens to run into him with his daughter Sarah. She spends time at the show with him, much to the distress of the other society matrons present.

Their friendship blossoms in the light of the hunger she feels for companionship, but she faces the prejudice present in Hartford. A white woman seen out with a black man is a big taboo, even the black community itself looks down on Raymond. Cathy copes with a society gossip who makes sure everyone knows, and the information filters back to Frank just as he’s coping with being sent on a respite from work due to the side effects of the “treatments” he’s receiving.

Haynes’ exploration of the social taboos of the ’50s is handled quite well here. We have a family who seems to represent the many idyllic families portrayed on television during that time, while the truth about the family bubbles beneath the surface. Although it is not explored, nor alluded to that I could see, I expect that her friends all have less than perfect lives as well, although the shame factor keeps them from looking to each other for support. The only way this is touched on somewhat is the fact that Cathy doesn’t have the confidence in her relationship with her best friend, Eleanor (portrayed by Patricia Clarkson) to confide in her, even when it becomes apparent to Eleanor that there are problems.

In Cathy, we are shown a woman who is the strength and backbone of her family, yet not given the credit she deserves as she lives in the shadow of her successful husband. The question is whether she has the strength to buck all of the social animosity leveled at her and Raymond from the circles both of them travel in. The impression I had was that she was tired of putting on the show for everyone and just wanted to be relaxed and happy, something she seems to feel when she’s with Raymond.

Not only does Haynes manage to capture the social climate of the times, but he captures the look of many of the television shows and films of the time period. Haynes uses lighting and shading to create a variety of effects and frames his shots in ways that are familiar to viewers of films created during the time period from the late 50s through the 60s. The one time that really stood out was when Kathleen finally does confide in Eleanor, first about what’s been going on with her husband and then about the relationship with Raymond. The warmth of the scene and lighting as Eleanor is plying her with sympathy suddenly seems to become filled with shadows as the camera pans back to Eleanor after Cathy’s confession of fondness for the black gardener. I think this movie is best viewed on a large screen, or at least a large screen television.

The performances here are great. Julianne Moore’s is perhaps the most demanding as she not only must portray her role but be a woman who is portraying a role in society for this film. Cathy is the ultimate actress, fooling everyone she comes in contact with that her life at home is perfect until the chinks in the armor surface and she is incapable of keeping it together any longer. Moore carries herself with an elegance I’d expect from a woman in the 50s and struck me as eerily reminiscent of the women I’d seen in Mona Lisa Smile. In some ways, with her appreciation for art, the Far From Heaven could almost be seen as a look into what life might have ended up like for some of the women in that film. Moore captures the feeling that fits in with a woman who was educated at a college to secure her “MRS” degree.

Dennis Quaid portrays Frank Whitaker with just the perfect nervous energy at the beginning that I didn’t know what his secret was. Was he having an affair? Well, yes he was, but who it was with wasn’t obvious. By taking his character in this direction, Haynes makes his film quite distinctive from anything that might have been filmed thirty to forty years ago. Quaid portrays his character with the right amount of conflict that I felt complete sympathy for him. He is torn by the feelings he has and the shame he feels for them at the same time. When the “therapy” begins to transform his personality (as well as his creative side apparently) I could feel the frustration flowing from him as it boiled over, even in front of their friends at an annual Christmas party. At the same time, knowing what Frank is going through made me more sympathetic toward Cathy as she also has no clue of how to handle what is happening to her, as well as to the idyllic existence she’s always expected.

Probably the biggest surprise for me was Dennis Haysbert. Though he’s suffered from poor writing lately on 24, I hadn’t seen him in any other role that he really distinguished himself in. This film gives him a chance to shine as Raymond has his own naivete about bringing a white woman into the world he inhabits. He may realize his own place in the white world, but he isn’t expecting the reception he gets from his own comfort zone. In many ways, he is somewhat innocent and should have been more aware of what would happen if a black man grabs a white woman by the arm in public, or tries to sit down with her at a white lunch counter. Perhaps he’s been lulled into a false sense of security in the supposedly liberal northeast as he seems to be mystified by the reception he receives time and time again when he’s seen with Cathy. Haysbert makes this believable – another actor might not have been able to pull off this character. He also makes the transformation Raymond takes as he’s the one who realizes that he can’t ever be with Cathy because of society, and not because that’s what the two of them want.

Bonus Material:

Anatomy of a Scene – A Sundance Channel production about the film where the cast and crew talk about a key scene from the movie, the annual party scene where Frank starts to fall apart publicly. It’s interesting to see how the director chooses to shoot a scene to convey a particular feeling or emotion. It also brings all the elements together and shows how they affect the scene: lighting, music, acting, etc.

The Making of Far From Heaven – Cast and crew are interviewed about the film.

Director’s Commentary with Todd Haynes – This was really interesting, especially from the perspective of looking at the history of film in general. Haynes talks a lot about the influence of the director Douglas Sirk and the movie All That Heaven Will Allow on everything from the story to the choice of how to shoot a scene.

The Filmmaker’s Experience – Question & Answer with Todd Haynes & Julianne Moore – interview with the director and lead actress about various parts of the film.

Also included on the DVD are the Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Cast and Filmmaker Biographies, and a variety of Recommendations.

I highly recommend this sleeper film to anyone who hasn’t yet viewed it. Artistically speaking, it’s as wonderful as the story it presents.

1 reply »