It is the fall of 1957. The Whitakers, the very picture of a suburban family, make their home in Hartford, Connecticut. Their daily existences are characterized by carefully observed family etiquette, social events, and an overall desire to keep up with the Joneses. Cathy Whitaker is the homemaker, wife and mother. Frank Whitaker is the breadwinner, husband and father. Together they have the perfect '50s life: healthy kids and social prominence. Then one night, Cathy discovers her husband's secret life and her tidy, insular world starts spinning out of control. Fearing the consequences of revealing her pain and confusion to anyone in her own social circle, she finds unexpected comfort and friendship with her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan. Cathy's interactions with Raymond; her best friend Eleanor Fine; and her maid, Sybil, reflects the upheaval in her life. Cathy is faced with choices that spur gossip within the community, and change several lives forever.
From the start, this film is saturated in a nostalgic lyricism. The lovely suburban street in the fall, the trees all shades of red and orange; the sleek 1950s cars, all fins, two-tone colours and chrome. The score is light, tuneful and delicately orchestrated, recalling Virgil Thomson. This is the America of the north-eastern seaboard where all the best Americans come from. Most of the characters appear to be thoroughly decent, as well. At first. Julianne Moore plays the wife and Dennis Quaid the husband and they have two model children who call their Dad 'Sir' and do as they are told. Julianne Moore is a paragon: she is kind, tolerant, liberal and incredibly resilient. It is she who bears the emotional trauma of her husband's re-emergence as a gay. He had suppressed his sexuality for the duration of the marriage so far. She takes it in her stride and supports him rather than showing rejection.
One effect of this threat to her marriage is a growing relationship with her black (over-qualified) gardener (Dennis Haysbert). He, too, is a thoroughly decent man who has a lovely little daughter. They begin to meet discreetly - or so they think. They are obviously made for each other but meet disapproval and cruel behaviour from both sides of the racial divide. This is not the Deep South, so there are no burning crosses on the front lawn - just a feeling that it is everyone's business to express their views. In one scene, the couple are talking in the street and Julianna Moore breaks off their relationship. As she moves to go, he puts a restraining hand on her arm. The whole street, anonymous until now, freezes and men call warnings to Haysbert to unhand her. Ms. Moore's best friend, a thorough brick up to then, cuts her when she hears about the relationship with Haysbert.
All this is worked through but remains unresolved. One moral of the film is that the bad people of this world always try to bring down the good. The originality of the film lies in the paradoxical enhancement of the human cruelty by its very lyricism and beauty.
The acting is first rate. Julianna Moore keeps her character on a tight reign. Her character is a tough lady - controlled but warm. This makes the scene where she eventually breaks down into uncontrollable weeping all the more powerful.
Beware. You can watch this in Spanish with no subtitles, but if you want to watch it in English then you will have Spanish subtitles splashed across the bottom of the screen. And there is no option to switch them off. Deeply disappointing. Other than that, it's great.
Usually "cleverness," when perceived in a work of art, short-circuits our capacity to be moved by it -- usually, cleverness implies the self-conscious application of a "style," and to the extent that the style impinges on our awareness, we are less likely to be moved, or even much engaged, by the human "content." Todd Haynes, the director of "Far from Heaven," refuses to believe that we can't have it both ways, and in the most "meta" moment in the movie, he has two characters discuss the emotional content of abstract art (they are looking at a Miro), and one character insists that the abstraction if anything enables a more direct access to something basic and emotional and human. As a general principle, one might want to raise a question or two about that. The movie, however, isn't really very like a Miro -- its style is that of a 1950s romantic drama like "All that Heaven Allows," and its texture is of a heightened realism of presentation, and the heightening (in terms of color palette, camera angles, set design, costuming) is something that doesn't escape our notice, but it doesn't get in the way of our emotional engagement with the predicaments of the characters.
That it doesn't is a testimony to the actors -- Julianne Moore is superb as Cathleen Whitaker, who has to deal with learning that her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid) is attracted sexually to men -- something that distresses him and that he has tried to hide to preserve the "perfect family" image that all the Whitakers' friends and neighbors believe them to represent. Dennis Quaid, often shot in darkness or near darkness is absolutely splendid as the tortured Frank. When I use words like "superb" and "splendid," I am responding to performances that not only are a matter of representing characters: the actors here are also acting the part of 1950s actors playing the characters -- they give themselves totally and without irony to Haynes's project, which is to make his audience respond through a style to a human truth, even when that style, in 2002, can't help but be seen as "retro." Quaid, Moore, and Dennis Haysbert (as Raymond Deagan, the widowed black gardener to whom Cathleen in her confusion and sorrow is drawn) have the power to draw us in, even as we recognize a style of acting (and a restraint in what is shown and told) that is long out-of-date. Haynes believes that that style WORKED, that any style can work, if it is employed with directness and attention to detail, and backed by a good script (in a complementary style, of course). Elmer Bernstein's score, and even the design of the titles, are just two small examples of Haynes's attention to detail.
The truth that Haynes is after is emotional -- the pain, confusion, self-doubt, and frustration that occur when lines are crossed in any society. Here, the society is 1957 upper-middle-class Connecticut, and the lines have to do with sexual orientation and race relations. The conventions of this style do not give us any insight into racial or sexual issues -- they have to do with the fact that confusion, pain, etc., are tied up with the extent to which our vision of ourselves is connected to our consciousness of how our class or group sees us and whether or not we measure up to their standards. In 1957 in the US, homosexuality is agreed to be deviant and disgusting, and Frank, although he leaves Cathleen for a man, is not a free and happy spirit at the end. Likewise, a white woman's attraction to a black man is likewise deviant, but Cathleen and Deagan don't get a chance to progress far enough in their relationship after it becomes public knowledge (which Frank's sexual life never does). The pathos of the final scene is not exactly of lovers sundered but of chances missed, not willfully, but because there are children involved. Raymond's business is ruined in Connecticut, and he has a daughter to bring up. In the final scene he boards a train for a new life in Baltimore, and all Cathleen can do is exchange with him a final silent wave. It sounds sentimental, and it is -- but it's played superbly straight, and we believe it.