Far From Heaven

February 6th, 2003 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert

Writer/Director: Todd Haynes

It’s hard to know what to expect from Far From Heaven. And when it’s over, it’s also hard to know what you’ve just seen.

Is it a slice of 21st century societal concerns in a 50’s sitcom mindscape, or a timeless story about human frailty that just happens to be set in sugar-coated, post-war middle America?

Both — and neither — are true, and therein lies Far From Heaven’s downfall. For the entire film, you’ll wonder what the point seems to be. On the surface it’s an extended episode of Leave it To Beaver with themes of homosexuality, infidelity and race relations thrown in.

From the beginning, you’ll wonder if all the Mom and Dad, Apple Pie values are all a joke. The squeaky clean TV language, behaviour and social mores are so contrived they don’t even depict the 50’s as they were — just as 50’s TV told us they were (down to the aw shucks, pop’s and gee whizz, mom’s). Even the sweeping titles and title track are an homage to the Capra era.

But the problem is that when the inevitable bombshells drop, you expect the gears to shift into high-octane dramatic overdrive. The fact that they don’t might say as much about our expectations as movie audiences of our more enlightened time, but the result is an emotionally flat experience.

Again, maybe that was writer/director Todd Haynes’ point — for the emotional drama to be never visible, just simmering under the formica surface. But the script and proceedings still need a dramatic charge that never develops.

The story focuses on Kathleen Whitaker (Julianne Moore), a suburban mother with a successful sales executive husband (Dennis Quaid) and two cute kids. The model of the American Mom, Kathy has a busy home life of society parties, charity and volunteer work, and is surprised by the sudden presence in her life of Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), her new gardener — and a black man.

After the first 30 Brady Bunch minutes, things start to fall apart. Kathy discovers her husband is sleeping with other men and she subsequently befriends Raymond, drawing the ire and gossip of the town ladies who delight in the scandal of her being seen with a coloured man.

Kathy’s friendship with Raymond develops into a love neither of them quite admit or act on as her home life, social standing and marriage disintegrate.

When all’s said and done, there’s really no resolution to speak of in any of Kathy’s crises and again, we’re left wondering about the film’s intentions. If it’s a comment on the various prejudices of the time, the conclusion seems to assert that there was simply no overcoming them (something history has proven false).

And if it isn’t allegorical of the middle 20th century bigotry endemic in American culture and simply aims to tell the story of one woman’s emotional struggle, it’s hard to rouse any sympathy for her as she never rises above the emotional quagmire of her environment.

Th one upside is Julianne Moore’s performance. Having proven herself in indie and arthouse productions long ago, audiences can expect to see nothing less than mastery of her craft. She embodies the suburban 50’s mother and wife so perfectly you’re almost waiting for a commercial break about the new Edsel.

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