Todd Haynes' exquisite Far From Heaven is obviously a conscious attempt to mimic and update the style of Douglas Sirk (especially All That Heaven Allows). Set in the 1950s, Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, an affluent housewife in Suburban New England, whose perfect life is rocked by her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) dawning acceptance of his homosexuality. As her life falls apart, she develops a tentative relationship with her gardener (Dennis Haysbert) which is complicated by the fact that he is black. Haynes pulls no punches in this film. These characters all carry secrets that are deadly to their happy lives in suburban Connecticut in 1957, and when those secrets are exposed they have the force and power of an atomic bomb.
The cast is superb. Julianne Moore, always great, is at her absolute best here. She has the hardest part to play – a woman falling in love, but not showing it; a woman falling apart, but not showing it. Quaid gets the showiest role, delivering some of the most powerful moments in the film with a performance so finely tuned that it hardly seems like melodrama at all. Haysbert, as the final member of this tragic trio, is also great, and thanks to Haynes, his role is well crafted. He has an inner life and purpose, rather than simply being the inspiration for a white character’s arc.
Far From Heaven rips the veneer of civilization off of American suburbia in the 1950s. He makes the right choice to set Far From Heaven in the fall in New England when New England is beautified by the natural changing of the leaves – and seems to be on fire. As the film progresses, the trees become completely bare, mirroring the devastation wrought on his characters.
One of the greatest aspects of Far From Heaven, though, is its score. Poignant, powerful, and serving the emotional resonance of the story and acting, Far From Heaven was the last film scored by the great film composer Elmer Bernstein. Moreover, there is something poetic about Bernstein, who was called by the House Un-American Activities Committee (and later effectively blacklisted), getting his last credit in a film that exposes the revisionist history of the 1950s as exactly that.
Far From Heaven is a unique film to list as one of the best films of the decade. It is so mannered, so consciously of a different time, so actively at odds with everything else that I have watched for this project that it stands out – as if it were the only film in color. I suspect that long after I have moved on to other films, I will remember Far From Heaven. I heartily recommend it to you.
Far From Heaven finds itself on this list because five of the 37 critics’ lists compiled ranked it as one of the ten best films of the decade. It was also selected as the best film of the decade by Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly. If you’re watching along with me, the next film I’ll review will be Paul Greengrass’ take on September 11th in United 93.
From Out in the Void,