July 19, 2011

Queer Review: Far From Heaven (2002)

Far From Heaven
Director: Todd Haynes
Writer: Todd Haynes
Cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson

A melodrama made in the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, Far From Heaven is director Todd Haynes' homage to the soap operas of Douglas Sirk.

On the surface, the Whitiker family appear to be a normal and well adjusted family living in 1950s Connecticut. However the family patriarch Frank (Dennis Quaid) has a problem, namely a desire to have sex with men in a time and place when any "unnatural" sexual hunger is highly taboo and when he acts upon it, he finds himself trouble with the law. While Frank begins undergoing treatment, his wife Cathy (Julianne Moore) finds her world shaken and her only other source of support in a close friend Eleanore Fine (Patricia Clarkson). Eventually, Cathy finds herself turning to comfort from a black man, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert) only to find out that racism was not limited to a Jimmie Crowe in the south. When her friends find out, Cathy finds herself going from a respected party host to social leper.

The Queering
It is clear from watching Far From Heaven that Todd Haynes went to extraordinary lengths to capture the look and feel of a film made during the 1950's. Take away the sub-plot with Frank struggling with his sexuality and Far From Heaven could have been made during the height of the Hays Code. Colours are garishly overstated with greens and purples taking prominence. Visually, this creates a rather memorable look and the Oscar nomination cinematographer Edward Lachman garnered for his work here was highly deserved.

Overall, this is a strong movie, although not a great one. I admired what director Todd Haynes accomplished here but did not always find myself enthralled with it. Haynes clearly has a gift for drawing out most subtle work from his actors and establishing the right mood for a scene. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Patricia Clarkson, and Dennis Haysbert all give sublime performances. The main quibble I had with the acting was not the fault of any of the performers, but I did keep expecting Dennis Haysbert, who is now the Progressive insurance company spokesperson, to turn around and try to sell car insurance to Cathy.

The most compelling aspect of Far From Heaven is Cathy's journey from respected party host to social leper and the sub-plot with the greatest interest - at least to a queer audience - is regulated to the background. The main plot of course is Cathy's struggles with racism and other McCarthy era prejudices. While one senses that Haynes was intending to make a connection between racism and homophobia, he never explicitly does so, at least not in the way Philadelphia did.

Most movies present the greatest danger from racism as being the violence faced by racial minorities and ignore the damage done by the social and institutional bigotry that has always existed in this country. Far From Heaven takes a different approach, not only is it set in a northern state, but shows how much damage can be wrought by this societal cancer, not by showing the violence, but rather how both Cathy and Raymond are forced to suffer by the rules that ultimately force them apart. Similarly, Frank is also never subjected to actual violence but the psychological harm from the repression that he has undergone shows in every aspect of Quaid's performance.

Overall, this is an interesting film with a lot going for it, even if at times I was never really drawn into the characters struggles. I felt more often then not, that I really was watching the characters through a barrier of more then 50 years. However, given the parameters that Haynes forced himself to work within, what he actually accomplished is commendable.

Strongly recommended. This movie is not quite so far from heaven as the title suggests.

The Rating


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