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Friday, November 29, 2002

Far From Heaven
Far From Heaven is exactly as you’ve heard: a faultless recreation of a 1950s Douglas Sirk-style melodrama. The styling of the movie is immaculate; the palette, the fonts, the clothes, the set, the script, the contents of the characters’ daily lives, the music are all supremely evocative of the object of Todd Haynes hommage. (If he doesn’t get the Oscar for art direction, that is me through with thinking there’s even a possibility of justice in those awards.)

The acting is excellent. Julianne Moore is magnificent, as she always is. She has the 1950s look, bearing, and sense of control down. She always acts as though she’s holding something back, so she’s perfect for the part of Kathy, the model ‘50s wife and mother, keeping up appearances and doing everything that’s expected of her. Dennis Quaid is a good fit for the role of her husband Frank, a manly colossus who pitches televisions, plays golf, and schmoozes better than anyone else. When Kathy finds Frank in a passionate kiss with another man, all the tiny cracks she’s looked away from suddenly resolve into a huge fissure that destroys her happy home.

She finds herself turning to her black gardener, Raymond Deagan, for companionship. What starts as polite condescension becomes a learning experience and eventually a sincere affection. He’s smart, insightful, an upstanding man who prioritizes his family in a way that Kathy’s selfish husband can’t or won’t. But she’s an upper-middle-class white woman, and he’s a black man, and even in liberal(ish) Connecticut, there’s no possibility of her maintaining her social position and even maintaining a friendship with him. At the same time, his home and family are attacked by blacks who feel the same way as their neighbors on the other side of the color line.

Naturally, it’s the innocent who suffer. Only an out gay filmmaker could’ve gotten away with a storyline that shows the harm that being honest about sexuality can do. Nowadays, we’d all agree that Frank is better being open about his orientation, but when appearances count for so much, and women’s lives are so controlled, his move seems like selfishness—and it is. The movie does a good job of demonstrating the hierarchy of prejudice: Sure folks are homophobic, and openly so, but they deal with gayness far more rationally than they do with interracial friendship, never mind love.

Ultimately, though, the movie lacks a top gear. A melodrama should send people reaching for their hankies, but judging from the folks around me, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house. Even when Kathy loses her composure—which happens only momentarily—the mask is still in place. Of course Julianne Moore is acting the part of a woman acting a part. She does it well, but if you’re never permitted a glimpse of what’s behind the mask, you don’t get as sad, glad, or mad as you could if you were shown some real feeling. Perhaps because Haynes was preoccupied with mimicking Sirk so faithfully, the film comes off as rather antiseptic—it’s more like a museum exhibit of a “real 1950s household, social issues included” than a slice of real life.