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"The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,"
on 8 June 2006
This gorgeously melodramatic potboiler was made in the mid-50's just as Jane Wyman's star power was waning and Rock Hudson was becoming a superstar. But All That Heaven Allows is most memorable as a study of small town intolerance, and where it's portrayal of a world that is mostly picture perfect - at least for the inhabitants of Stonington, Connecticut where the movie is set - is nothing more than quaint.
These days All That Heaven Allows is most notable for forming the basis for the brilliant Julianne Moore film Far From Heaven, out a few years ago. Both have the same visual look - white churches, nice homes and beautiful trees - and both films attempt to skewer societal narrow-mindedness. Yet there are obvious differences: Far From Heaven dealt with racial and sexual politics, while this film - keeping mindful of the time it was made - mines the effects of class and economic status.
Carey Scott (Wyman) is a middle-aged widow, living a quietly domestic life in Stonington. She has a lovely home and two devoted children, she's also a pillar of society and cares a lot about her standing in the community. Yet Carey is also a fragile and lonely woman, and there's a part of her that aches for some kind of emotional connection.
She has a number of wealthy men, who routinely court her, but it is Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson) who she is ultimately drawn to, he's a tall, muscular and handsome young man who customarily prunes her trees. Ron is not a dolt; he's a college educated, intuitive and sensitive, but over the years, has learnt to spurn the trappings of society. Uncomplicated and trouble-free, he lacks the phony polish and sophistication of Carey's city friends.
An outdoorsman - Ron lives in a picturesque cabin by a bubbling stream in the country and has lots of artists, writers and has lots of fun loving bohemian friends who regularly come to visit him. Carey seems to represent everything, Ron is rebelling against; however, the two soon fall in love, swept up by their mutual attraction. There initial courtship is tempered by Cary's insecurities - it's not so much the class as the age difference - she is older by a decade.
Problems also arise when Carey's prudish and snobbish children (William Reynolds and Gloria Talbott) turn on her for wanting to marry a gardener, some one of a lower class; they see him as some type of gigolo, a big shot who obviously has no real money of his own, and is content to feed off their mother's wealth. Resistance also comes from Carey's oppressive society ladies. Her best friend Sara (Agnes Moorehead) - while staying loyal to Carey - warns her that there are those on the town who will talk.
Carey's friends pretend to be urbane and classy but they lack refinement. In fact, they're all rather petty and shallow. When Carey invites Ron to one of Sara's soirée's, her guests anxiously stare out the window, waiting for Ron to show up so that they can sink their talons into him - he is their quarry, and thing to be ridiculed, especially by Mona, the town gossip (Jacqueline De Witt).
Wyman and Hudson are both standouts as Carey and Ron; Wyman does a great job of playing this damaged, vulnerable women who has been going through life letting other people - mostly her hypocritical and selfish children - make most of the big decisions for her. And the gorgeous Rock is exemplary as the sophisticated, and extremely good-looking muscle stud who sweeps Carey off her feet with his tender and sensitive side.
All That Heaven Allows is absolutely gorgeous to look at, with director Douglas Sirk bathing the film in brilliant primary colours, which highlights the natural beauty of the New England landscape. Sirk shows a bourgeois family in which the children oppress their mother instead of the other way around. Sirk also presents an intimate and quite daring portrait of a woman who gets caught up in unnecessary negativity, her paranoia at what people are saying threatens to engulf her and she needs to learn to just go with the flow.
Carey knows that it is wrong not to marry Ron - after all, she loves him, despite the age difference - but she is far too concerned with honoring the petty social mores of the time, and satisfying her insincere and two-faced children. In the end, this doesn't really mean much, especially when true love is involved.