All That Heaven Forbids

by Steven Snyder

Far From Heaven” is a 2002 film made to look like a genuine 1950s melodrama with one discernable difference: It confronts the issues that 1950s films never could.

“Far From Heaven” is about the “perfect” nuclear family. Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid) is Hartford, Connecticut’s most successful sales executive, Cathy (Julianne Moore) is the elite socialite who cherishes her husband’s celebrity, and they have, of course, two perfect children. But much like other films that have peaked beneath suburbia’s surface, such as “Blue Velvet” and “American Beauty,” not everything in Frank and Cathy’s world is as it seems.

Frank is a closeted homosexual, pursuing his passions on the side until his wife discovers him with his lover one night. Cathy is, much to her community’s surprise, friendly with her “Negro” gardener, and gossip spreads after she is seen talking to him at an art gallery opening and getting out of his truck near a black-owned restaurant. Both spouses, because of the expectations of their conservative society, can never be the people they truly are.

These are not new issues. Rather, what sets “Far From Heaven” apart from other films about society and prejudice is its technical skill in matching the style of ’50s films, and writer/director Todd Haynes’ adherence to a 1950s perspective.

In the film, Frank sincerely believes his homosexuality is a problem and goes to a counselor to cure his “disease.” Some viewers may be put off by how Haynes presents the issue from the perspective of a 1950s director. Back then, it was not socially acceptable to be gay, and Haynes is unflinching in his sincere depiction of Cathy’s disgust and Frank’s personal shame. Similarly, Cathy’s relationship with the gardener is shown as unacceptable, a social risk that threatens her popularity, Frank’s stable job and their family’s happiness.

“Far From Heaven” is unquestionably a film with a social agenda but it creates its message with faith in the intelligence of the viewer. There is not a character that explains that homosexuality is (gasp) okay, and that people of different races can, in fact, have a conversation. There is no moralizing or winking back at the viewer from the wiser eyes of the 21st century.

The film is more powerful as a result. By refusing to pacify the audience and wrap the story up with a pretty pink bow, the inequalities and injustices of this society become that much more visible. There is no hope for Frank, Cathy, the gardener or this society. Life is the way it is and there is no one character or scene of hope for the audience to rally behind.

Technically, “Far From Heaven” may be the best film of the year. Haynes creates a wonderfully stylized world, reminiscent of melodramas from the 1950s, with supersaturated colors, a swelling, dramatic score and frequent fades that give the story a dreamy feel. Homosexuality is clearly separated as a threat to the family structure and Haynes finds numerous, surprising ways of spatially separating Cathy from her black gardener. Using poles, cold versus warm lighting, even different shades of autumn leaves, it is obvious that both exist in very different worlds.

If “Far From Heaven” has a weakness, it may be that it occasionally oversells its 1950s approach. The notion that the world of the Whitakers was “Far From Heaven” is hardly surprising. Every discussion between a white and black person, every mention of gay love and every attempt to break free of this society’s norms is shown as a monumental event. While that would surely be true of a film made from the 1950s and remains true to Haynes’ approach, it causes the film to occasionally drag for a modern audience.

“Far From Heaven,” rated R. Directed by Todd Haynes. Starring Dennis Quaid, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert. Now showing at area theaters.

Steven Snyder welcomes comments at [email protected]