Thursday, April 07, 2011

Far from Heaven

Originally Written and Posted at on 1/7/04 w/ Extensive Revisions & New Content.

Written and directed by Todd Haynes, Far from Heaven is the story of 1950s Connecticut housewife whose idyllic life and marriage shatters upon the discovery of her husband's homosexual tendencies.  With her husband going to treatment, the wife begins to fall for her black gardener.  The film recalls Haynes' themes of repression in the home life and in homosexuality, which was taboo in the 1950s.  The film is also a tribute to the film of Douglas Sirk, famous for such melodramatic films such as All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life.  Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haybert, Viola Davis, and Patricia Clarkson.  Far from Heaven is a lush and enchanting drama from Todd Haynes and company.

It's 1957 in Hartford, Connecticut as a beautiful housewife named Cathy Whitaker comes home and brings grocery to her lovely house with her perfect family including son David (Ryan Ward) and daughter Janice (Lindsay Andretta). Her husband Frank is at work in his corporate office while Cathy is at home with help from her black maid Sybil (Viola Davis). Cathy seems to have the perfect life much envy but she seems to think her life is just like everyone else’s as a local newspaper editor Mrs. Leacock (Bette Henritze) wants to do a profile on her. On that day, she sees a black man in her backyard that turns out to be her new gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), who is replacing his late father, who was the family’s old gardener.

While Cathy’s life seems to be perfect, she still has to contend with the town’s gossip queen Mona Lauder (Celia Weston) while she often talks gossip about sex and home life with best friend Eleanor Fine (Patricia Clarkson). Cathy then seems to notice about her husband’s behavior as he often works late, doesn’t spend a lot of time at home, and most recently was arrested for drunken behavior. One night when she decides to bring his dinner to his work place, she finds Frank kissing another man in his office, as she is both shocked and confused. Frank doesn’t know why he behaves like this as he goes to see psychiatrist Dr. Bowman (James Rebhorn) to seek some sort of treatment. Cathy just wants to move on and please her husband as she begins to talk more with Raymond, who is a single parent that owns a plant shop outside of Hartford. She meets with and his daughter Sarah (Jordan Puryear) at an art gallery Eleanor was hosting, as Raymond says some very intelligent things about a Miro painting. Cathy is extremely impressed with his knowledge and sensitivity while the townspeople are lurking over what is going on.

Later at a dinner party hosted by Cathy, she finds herself uncomfortable by the talks of integration in Hartford while Frank is getting drunk at the party. When it ends, Frank tries to make love to her but couldn’t but she says it’s OK as he accidentally hits her. Eleanor comes to the house the next day to pick up some things as she sees the bruise on Cathy’s head as Cathy nearly breaks down in front of her and later, in front of Raymond. Raymond comforts her as he takes her to a park to buy flowers for the garden and a restaurant nearby a car shop where Mona sees the two. Raymond takes Cathy to the restaurant where the restaurant’s all black-patrons look on with ill ease as Raymond ignores their look as Cathy finds Raymond charming.

Rumors begin to swell over what Mona saw as Eleanor begins to ask Cathy what’s going on as Frank is suggesting that Cathy is having an affair where she insists, nothing happened. Cathy had no choice but to fire Raymond but Raymond doesn’t want her to ignore things but understands why they couldn’t be together. Around Christmas time, Frank and Cathy go on a vacation by themselves as Frank’s homosexual tendencies are tested again and he begins to fall apart. Cathy then learns that school kids attacked Raymond’s daughter, as she is saddened at where her life is and realizes that there’s no such thing as a perfect life.

What makes Far from Heaven such an exquisite, delicate little film isn’t just its colorful, ravishing look but its restrained melodrama from its actor and film’s script. Todd Haynes, who is known for such films as Safe, Velvet Goldmine, and the controversial Poison, makes a movie that isn’t just a lovely tribute to Douglas Sirk’s work but also makes them superior to some of today’s modern drama films. He brings in some trained, old school acting style back from the 1950s but with a modern humanistic tone that makes the characters entertaining and real at the same time. Haynes goes for elements of suspense and drama at its most heightened or just making it linear to the story. Especially in the film’s racial tension where it isn’t just the whites looking very discomforted but blacks as well as they too, don’t like the idea of this handsome, intelligent black man talking with this beautiful, charming white woman. It’s stories like that, that are so ahead of its time and Haynes takes it back in time and makes it look fresh.

The look of the film is just breathtaking thanks in large part to cinematographer Edward Lachman. Lachman’s use of color, lighting, and wide-angle shots are so divine, it leaves you breathless as if you’re back in the 1950s. His look is both rich and luscious in its tone and works in its dramatic setting, along with the production design from Mark Friedberg who places all sorts of details of 1957 Hartford from its cars and buildings, to the housings. The film’s art director Peter Rogness should be credited for the film’s colorful look, especially with its fall-like setting of colorful leaves and green grasses. Even the costumes by designer Sandy Powell is filled with life with the big dresses Julianne Moore wore to the more tightened, clothing Patricia Clarkson was wearing along with suits and tuxedos Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert wore.

Another great element that brought suspense to the film was Elmer Bernstein’s orchestral score. From its subtle, heartfelt moments, Bernstein brings in a touch of light, smooth orchestral music that just worked while in the more intense dramatic moments, he just strikes with emotional power the way drama should work. At times, it makes your hair stand as if you’re watching a highly emotional scene with immense intensity.

The film’s performance is just top-notch from the smaller roles like the Whitaker’s children and townspeople including the cheery Mrs. Leacock and the lecherous gossip queen Mona Lauder. Even the more standout roles like James Rebhorn’s Dr. Bowman are played at a subdued, restrained tone which some aren’t used to seeing for those who know Rebhorn for playing asshole-like characters. Viola Davis’ role as the maid Sybil is noted just for its quiet tone as she strays away from the cliché of an African-American maid in the 1950s. Instead, Davis just plays the role from a more subdued, discipline role, as she knows what’s going on between Raymond and Cathy but isn’t saying anything although she isn’t pleased.

The film’s best supporting performance overall goes to Patricia Clarkson as Moore’s best-friend Eleanor. Clarkson gives a raspy, cool tone to her performance as she plays the best friend without descending to other type of clichés where she is the one trying to help her and knowing where she shouldn’t be at. Clarkson is just enigmatic in both her delivery and grace. Dennis Haysbert is by far the film’s most impressive male performance as again, he strays away from stereotypes. Haysbert brings in a relaxed, wise tone to Raymond by just being this African-American character that knows where his place is although isn’t afraid to cross the world he isn’t supposed to be in. It’s the fearlessness that’s impressive as Haysbert proves to be more versatile with each performance and is understandably one of the most underrated actors around.

Dennis Quaid brings in his best performance to date as the tortured mess known as Frank Whitaker. At times, Quaid brings in restraint to his character when it’s needed while being shady in places he’s trying to hide in while breaks down in front of his children in the more dramatic performances. Quaid is just amazing in the way he reveals his internal conflict. Julianne Moore is the film’s best performance as she brings in both beauty and intelligence to her performance while trying not to act phony. She does play that 50s housewife trying to please her husband but she develops into a stronger woman who realize that images aren’t what they seem. It is definitely her most radiant performance of her career.

***The Following Content was Written on 4/7/11***

The 2003 Region 1 DVD for Far from Heaven from Universal presents the film in its 1:85:1 theatrical aspect ratio for the widescreen format. Also presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS Surround Sound in English and Dolby Surround in French plus subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. The look of the film is gorgeous in displaying the lush photography of Edward Lachman as well as the sound work of Kelley Baker.

The special features of the DVD includes a feature-length commentary track from the film’s writer-director Todd Haynes. Haynes discusses the film’s production and inspiration including reading quotes about film theory from Douglas Sirk as well as Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s thoughts on Sirk’s films. Haynes also revealed that because of the small budget and limitations they had as they were shooting the film on New Jersey. The production was tense though they got through it quite easily. Haynes reveals that since he wanted to recreate the look of Sirk’s films for Far from Heaven, he worked closely with Edward Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, and costume designer Sandy Powell about how it should look.

Haynes revealed that during the shooting, Julianne Moore was early in her pregnancy as Sandy Powell did create clothes that would make her comfortable. Haynes praised the work of the actors while he revealed that Dennis Haysbert had a difficult time due to the fact that he had to fly back and forth from New York to Los Angeles for his work on the show 24. Haynes also discusses the story and how he wanted to give it a Sirk-like feel while adding a bit of Fassbinder to some of the characters and in tone of the film. Particularly with the editing as the transitions were partially inspired by Fassbinder’s films. The overall commentary is an enjoyable treat that allows Haynes to reflect on the film and such.

The 27-minute Anatomy of a Scene special from the Sundance Channel is about the making of the party scene at the Whitakers’ home. Haynes along with Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, cinematographer Edward Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, editor James Lyons, costume designer Sandy Powell, and music composer Elmer Bernstein the importance of the party scene in which Frank gets drunk as it leads to a breakdown between him and Cathy. Haynes, the actors, and crew members each discuss their approach to the scene while using the films of Douglas Sirk and the period of the 1950s as a guideline. It’s definitely a marvelous special that breaks down how a scene is created.

The 11-minute making-of featurette is a piece where Haynes, the main cast, and Elmer Bernstein talk about the film. Featuring clips of films by Douglas Sirk, notably All That Heaven Allows, Haynes talks about wanting to recreate the world of Sirk but with a contemporary feel of sorts. Even as the actors like Dennis Quaid revealed that it was challenging because it was a different style of acting. Haynes reveals that the biggest highlight of making the film is working with Elmer Bernstein as Bernstein revealed that the score for this film is one of his favorites. The five-minute Q&A session with Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore has the two talking about their collaboration while Moore talks about her process to the performance. Even as she reveals that she doesn’t like to rehearse and find the character through the acting.

Other minor special features on the DVD include the film’s theatrical trailer, recommendations from Focus Features on films like Francois Ozon’s 8 Women and Neil LaBute’s Possession, cast and director info, and production notes about the film and Haynes’ desire to bring back the 1950s melodrama films of Douglas Sirk. The overall DVD is truly marvelous as it features special features fans of Haynes would love.

Far from Heaven is a gorgeous yet heartbreaking masterpiece from Todd Haynes featuring a superb performance from Julianne Moore. Featuring phenomenal supporting work from Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haybert, Viola Davis, and Patricia Clarkson. It’s a film that will allow audiences to soak into the lush, melodramatic work that Haynes has created while paying tribute to the late Douglas Sirk. While it’s Haynes’ most accessible work to date, it is definitely a film that is definitely romantic with characters that audiences can root for. In the end, Far from Heaven is a magnificent triumph from Todd Haynes.

© thevoid99 2011


Courtney Small said...

Great review. I was re-visiting this film earlier in the week. A brilliant piece of cinema that still hits all the rights notes years later.

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. Seeing it again for this retrospective on Haynes made me appreciate the film more and more.

It's also getting me interested in seeing those Douglas Sirk films.