Far from Heaven is a bittersweet pastiche about a family falling apart in 1950s Connecticut, America. It stars Julianne Moore as dutiful housewife Cathy Whitaker and Dennis Quaid (long time, no see!) as Frank her businessman husband. They play the ‘whiter than white’ suburban couple whose Tupperware lifestyle, envied by all their friends, spirals completely out of control.
Blame the husband, blame the wife, the kids or the maid, but no-one can deny the shock that would be felt if you’d caught your husband in the ’50s having an affair – least of all when it’s with a man. The director uses this incidence to propel the audience through issues of prejudice – like how you’d be shunned by all if you dared admit to being homosexual. Characters in Far from Heaven recoil in disgust at the mere mention of the word.
The wholesome Whitakers try to patch things up and keep their marriage together, to keep a good reputation, but inevitably things fall apart. Despite Cathy being surrounded by so-called friends, she has to confide in gardener and handyman Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). He provides a shoulder to cry on, as he seems to have been through tough times, so can help Cathy get over her pain. But this ends up causing more problems than it solves for our heroine. She becomes the source of gossip for the community – because of her friendship with Reagan, who happens to be black.
The film manages to examine issues of race and sexuality and show us how they were rampant in 1957. But also reminds us that they are still prevalent in 2003.
The acting is of a high standard, prompting Oscar talk, and Moore’s convincing portrayal of a wholesome woman who keeps her cool is utterly believable. Quaid’s alcoholic man on the edge portrayal is also powerful – so much so that Frank takes over and you stop thinking “Oh that’s Dennis Quaid the famous actor.”
For me the best part of the film was its aesthetic quality. Far From Heaven uses beautiful autumn colours and some highly stylised effects, borrowed by director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine/Superstar:The Karen Carpenter Story) from Douglas Sirk films (known for their vivid use of Technicolor). From the perfectly coiffured ladies in their elegant ’50s dresses – courtesy of Sandy Powell (Bafta winner for Velvet Goldmine costumes) – to the hip automobiles of the day, no stone has been left unturned.
The ending, however, is weak. No matter how much you are behind the issues of equality, you can’t help feel this has all been done before. Humour derived from the camp tweeness of the situation is all well and good – it does give us a nudge that prejudice is alive and kicking – but does little more than gloss over the issues in a stylised fashion statement.
The tension between Cathy and Ray makes for gripping plot, but the rest of the story gets glossed over in a mass of Technicolour, twee living rooms and fifties nostalgia. And I felt more could have been made of Cathy and her circle of friends. A particular favourite scene was the chat around a table, a la Sex in The City for the 1950s. Instead of the girls bragging about the men they had slept with, the cardigan-wearing tea sippers were discussing the horrors of being asked for sex by their husbands more than twice a week. Bi Jiminy!