Todd Haynes most recently gave us the enchantingly heart-breaking Carol but 14 years ago he gave us Far From Heaven, also set in the 1950s and again tackling issues of homosexuality as well as race in times of hate, resentment and hostility. Julianne Moore is the classic 50s housewife as Cathy Whitaker with a businessman husband Frank (Dennis Quaid), the Whitakers may look like the perfect family from their are issues slowly rising to the surface that will challenge that image. Also starring: Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis and James Rebhorn.
Firstly I must admit to being of the school of thought that Julianne Moore is one of the finest actresses alive, she goes from strength to strength and never disappoints and she certainly doesn’t in her portrayal of Cathy. The constant suppression of emotion and necessity to appear perfect to the world are seen through her eyes and she shows that struggle so well, the image of Moore in costume seems perfectly idyllic for a 50s mother and even the way she speaks is quintessential of the era. Quaid’s part feels only feels the same in regards of appearance, his actual performance feels over the top and obvious, it’s as far from subtlety as you can get. Tackling the subject of a gay man in the 50s is significant and there are unlimited emotions that arise but there are few that Quaid explores, which could be blamed on writing or direction but it nevertheless is the result, and it comes across as flat and clichéd, instead of really getting to the root of the issue and exploring how deeply it would have affected his character. Dennis Haysbert’s performance as Raymond however is wonderful, it’s a hugely warm and tender presence that clearly comes across on screen and manages to deal with the issues of racial discrimination in the subtle way that Quaid’s is missing. Patricia Clarkson is delightful as always but there’s very little required of her character to delve into it too much, and Viola Davis’ part in this film evokes the feeling of resentment at how much talent she has and it still took several more years before that talent was actually recognised, so of course she could play this role in her sleep.
Just like Moore, the entire film feels perfectly fitted for the era, as if it were in fact made in the 50s in almost every aspect, from the vivid colour of everything to the way the scenes were shot to the dialect and costumes, it’s all flawlessly befitting of the time. The downfall of that however is that it makes the plot and its events feel somewhat dulled, as if it is only scratching the surface and shying away from delving deeper and portraying a little more honesty in the struggles of both homosexuals and African-American’s during that time period. Having seen Haynes’ work on Carol, which is much grittier and overflowing with emotion, it makes Far From Heaven come across extremely lightweight with barely a portion of the intensity that we get from other pieces of Haynes’ work. The blossoming friendship between Cathy and Raymond is both terrific and heart-breaking to watch, to have a connection with someone and somehow for that to evoke such a negative reaction from the entire community. The film certainly captures the atmosphere of the 50s to a tee and gives us a realistic portrait of those whose lives it reflects, as well as portraying the reactions to the issues it tackles in a faithful manner but it lacks a punch.
Generally the film is regarded highly, and it is for reasons that can be perfectly well understood but in the years that have passed since its release there have been so many films tackling these issues that hit harder and more bluntly that it feels like Far From Heaven is approaching them with rose-tinted glasses. Moore and Haysbert give first-rate performances and the style of the film is undeniable but it isn’t quite enough.