Review: Far From Heaven

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )

It seems that every year, when the nominations for the Academy Awards are announced, every one in America (or maybe just me) rushes out to see the nominated films. To see for ourselves what Oscar has chosen as Hollywood’s best of the past year. There will be no such rush for people to see Far From Heaven. There will be no Best Picture or Best Director award handed to Far From Heaven and its creator Todd Haynes on the 23rd of March. There will be no further box-office bonanza for Far From Heaven. The things that Far From Heaven will never get as a result of lack of nominations is unfair; this being my conclusion after driving an hour each way to see what is a great movie, only elevated by the fantastic performance of Julianne Moore. Its also unfair to say that the Academy entirely overlooked Far From Heaven, as they honored Julianne Moore and Todd Haynes (alas, only for the screenplay), but this was certainly not enough, considering that this was by far, the film made with the most love of 2002.

Since I am still just beginning to venture into the world of film criticism, my bank of prior knowledge is hardly where it should be. Thus, when I see a movie that requires back knowledge on previous entries in the genre or franchise, I feel is necessary to do research in order fully appreciate and adequately assess a film. Director and writer Todd Haynes has not kept it a secret that the inspiration for his movie has come from Douglas Sirk and his movies of the 1950’s. For research, I rented Imitation of Life; I found the film to be little more than a simplistic soap opera...but by the end, I was bawling my eyes out. Despite my overall impression of Imitation of Life, from watching it, I was better able to appreciate the craftsmanship that went into Far From Heaven. One of my observations from Imitation of Life, was that it dealt with issues pertinent at the time. What I loved about Far From Heaven was that it dealt with issues pertinent in our time, and encased them in a 1950’s melodrama, showing how issues in today’s society were secretly dealt with in the Eisenhower administration era.

These two issues are homosexuality, and interracial relationships. In our current society, both of these things are highly under the microscope and the basis for many a conversation and argument. However, in 1950, these issues existed, but were swept under the rug. Julianne Moore plays housewife Kathy Whitaker, and when we are introduced to her life in 1957 Hartford, Connecticut, we see that she is the stereotypical 1950’s woman that has been replicated numerous times. Shortly after the audience meets Kathy and her husband successful husband Frank, we discover that things in the Whitaker household are not as perfect as the exterior might imply. Frank has been working late nights, and when Kathy decides to surprise Frank at work with dinner, its her who is surprised to see him kissing another person...a man. Indeed, Frank is gay. While Frank goes to doctor’s offices trying to find a cure for this “disease” (the consensus of the time being that if you were a homosexual that it was a curable illness), Kathy begins a friendship with Raymond Deagan, her gardener and a black man. Soon, gossip begins to spread about the Whitaker household, and life for them will never be the same. In an effort not to reveal too many of Far From Heaven’s major plot elements, I will only say that the movie is about love in the end, and what the heart may want may not be what society says the heart should want.

Being a young critic, who is inexperienced with many sub-genres, I cannot say for certain whether Far From Heaven is a retread of classic 50’s movies, a modern day Douglas Sirk inspired film, or a unique film that implements characteristics of both these things. However, I do have eyes, ears, and a pretty good judge of taste and skill, and from what I saw, heard and felt, Far From Heaven is close to perfect. The film provides an insightful and moving look into real problems faced by seemingly perfect families. A refreshing aspect of the film I quite enjoy and seldom see is the reactionary quality of the script. Its very rare to see a script crafted to meticulously that it flows so perfect as to make it seem as though the script is reacting to the characters and not vice versa. Its hard to say whether or not Todd Haynes biggest accomplishment in Far From Heaven is his loving, precise direction, or his unique and eloquent script, but I can say for certain that both rank with the best of the year.

Julianne Moore is quickly becoming one of my favorite actresses in Hollywood. Not only is her supporting performance in The Hours the brightest aspect of that movie, but her solid, emotional turn as Kathy Whitaker is a tour de force of acting, something worthy of study by actors and actresses wanting to learn how to really act. Julianne has had quite a bit of practice as a 50’s housewife this year, as both her roles in The Hours and here in Far From Heaven have her playing just that. One might worry that playing these two characters, might in turn hurt the roles if these two outwardly similar yet polar opposite characters should mesh. However, thanks to her deep performances, there is no such thing. Supporting her is Dennis Quaid, an actor who I think has been due for a part like this, and he certainly doesn’t waste it. For his turn as Frank Whitaker, Quaid won the New York Film Critics Circle Award, and while I have no award to give him, I do give him kudos. Surprisingly memorable in a small role is Patricia Clarkston, who shines as Kathy’s gossipy and mousy best friend, Eleanor.

In the opening scene, we meet the lovely town of Hartford, Connecticut, circa 1957. What we see is the perfect town where there is no crime, the city streets are clean, and everyone says hello to each other. During the final minutes of Far From Heaven, Hartford, Connecticut hasn’t physically changed a bit, but what we ‘see’ (perhaps ‘feel’ would be a better word) is a cold town, a town ruled by gossip, and community in which you didn’t want to live. Creating such a feeling in an audience member, but Todd Haynes crafts this motif flawlessly. It is very evident that he spent much time with his cinematographer Edward Lachman, his Art Director Peter Rogness, and perhaps the most important element, Todd Haynes keeps the wonderful score by Elmer Bernstein running smoothly, (something that cannot be said for The Hours). And of course let us not forget the top rate performances by Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid, and the marvelous script. All of these aspects work together, to create an opulent motion picture, that demands our attention and respect. This is by no short distance, the most complete movie I have seen this year, and its lack of Oscar nominations is an embarrassment not to the movie, but to the Academy. When you look at the marquee of the theater near you, don’t judge a book by its cover, as Far From Heaven is anything but.

© 2003 Jacob Sproul

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