THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


I arrived at Far From Heaven with an earful of hype. I knew that writer/director Todd Haynes (Safe) had pattered his film after All That Heaven Allows, the old Douglas Sirk picture. I knew that not only did the movie look like Sirk's (and other similar films of the era) but that the stars were instructed to perform in the broad, theatric style that thespians used in the 1950's. Finally, I knew that Haynes was trying to make the type of movie Sirk never could have, to deal openly with subject matter that had to be implied decades ago. Admittedly, this sounded like a pretty interesting experiment to me. What was surprising was the fact that Far From Heaven so effortlessly transcends its concept. This is more than just a stunt; it's a movie whose visual and performance style actually brings something valuable to the material. It didn't take long to realize that this was one of the best films of the year.

Dennis Quaid puts on a happy facade for wife Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven
Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, an upper-class wife and mother in Hartford, Connecticut. Her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) works for Magnatech, a TV company. He makes a nice salary - nice enough that Cathy can explore various charitable interests while maid Sybil (Viola Davis) carries out most of the housework. Although everything seems picture perfect from the outside, we soon discover that things are not as wonderful as they appear. The first hint of trouble comes when Frank is arrested for "loitering." Of course, he claims that the cops got the wrong guy. Cathy happily believes him. Soon after, we see Frank checking out gay bars and other hideouts. He is subtly exploring his own homosexuality. Cathy makes a surprise visit to his office when he is supposedly "working late" one night and is shocked to find her husband passionately kissing another man.

Frank is deeply ashamed of himself and agrees to get help from a therapist (James Rebhorn). His homosexual desires continue nonetheless. Cathy is distraught, feeling like she has done something wrong. Around this time she befriends Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), her gardener who also happens to be African-American. They have a lot in common, and she is pleased to learn that he has a lot of knowledge about art. A friendship develops, followed by an attraction they both try to deny. When they are spotted together in public, gossip begins to spread within Cathy's elitist social circle. In a very ironic scene, Frank finds out about her relationship with Raymond and chastises her for the "shame" it will bring upon him.

Stylistically, Far From Heaven is one of the most remarkable films to hit the big screen in a long time. Everything from the cinematography to the set design to the costuming has been made to recreate the feel of a 1950's Douglas Sirk picture. Except for the presence of contemporary actors (and the use of a taboo-for-the-time profanity) you almost get a sense of watching something from a different era. Pop this movie onto the AMC channel and no one would know the difference.

The style is great, and Haynes and his crew deserve a lot of kudos for it. But that's not what I want to focus on. I expected Far From Heaven to be an experiment, much along the lines of Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake. What I did not expect was to be so fully engulfed in the story. Setting it in an era when homosexuality was considered shameful and friendships with blacks were frowned upon allows the movie to explore issues of intolerance with greater impact. Watching it, you can see how far we've come in some ways, how little in others.

The actors have a tough task as they try to hit all the emotional notes while employing a performance style that is no longer used. To their credit, they pull it off. Julianne Moore is sensation as the wife, grieving her husband's infidelity and mourning her inability to be with the man who truly cares about her simply because of his race. Dennis Quaid is also superb. He plays Frank as being full of inner torment. At the time, many people thought homosexuality was a sickness in need of a cure. Frank believes that fully. The fact that he can't be a "normal" heterosexual husband causes a lot of self-loathing. Dennis Haysbert is strong as well, playing the kind-hearted gardener who wants to do right by his young daughter. Raymond is, in many respects, the most observant character in the film. He sees things for what they are and figures out how to carry on from there.

Far From Heaven really involved me. If you're a student of the cinema, you will certainly be dazzled by the authenticity with which Haynes recreates movies of the period (especially All That Heaven Allows). You don't have to be into that to like the movie, however. Regardless of the setting or style, this is a film whose subject matter is just as relevant today as it was then. The difference is that we can deal with it openly now. By filtering it through the form of old movies - which buried such ideas under subtle insinuation - Haynes has produced an enlightening and vastly entertaining masterpiece.

( out of four)

Far From Heaven is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat