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'Far from Heaven'

Couple trapped in '50s 'Heaven'

Friday, November 22, 2002

by Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ah, yes, the Eisenhower years. A time of peace, prosperity, two-parent families and children who, when disappointed, utter, "Aw, shucks."

 
 
Movie Review

'FAR FROM HEAVEN'

RATING: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language.
STARRING: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert
DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes

   
 

A time when a white woman becomes the object of gossip and condemnation because she dares -- in a crowded art gallery -- to speak to a black man. A time when elegantly clad party guests, blind to the very men and women serving food and drink, thank their lucky stars "there are no Negroes" in Hartford, Conn. A time when a husband, fearing he is gay, sees a doctor who suggests counseling, plus possible electroshock and hormone therapy.

The Eisenhower years -- late 1957 and early '58, in this case -- provide the backdrop for writer-director Todd Haynes' fabulous "Far From Heaven," modeled after the domestic melodramas from John Stahl and Douglas Sirk. They occasionally do make movies like they used to, although Haynes slips in a harsh obscenity and includes a brief kissing scene that's more explicit than anything you would have found in the '50s.

Haynes borrows more than just the time frame. He duplicates the dialogue and shooting style, music (by Elmer Bernstein) and cinematography. He and director of photography Edward Lachman set the mood with brilliant fall colors of red-orange, gold and green and frequently pose star Julianne Moore against the lush landscape. Soon more is changing than the season.

Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a suburban homemaker in Hartford, Conn. She is married to Magnatech (think Magnavox TV) executive Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), has two children and busies herself with social and charitable causes. A black maid (Viola Davis) keeps their household spotless.

But cracks are starting to appear in the perfect family photo.

Frank is spiking his morning coffee with booze, losing his temper and secretly going to a gay bar. Cathy's life begins to change as well, after meeting gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a well-spoken, handsome and caring widower with a school-age daughter. To a woman increasingly distraught over her troubled marriage, Raymond offers friendship, kindness and passage to a world where she's the only white person in the room.

Although Frank, Cathy and Raymond try to return to their once conventional, socially acceptable lives, that becomes increasingly difficult. Lessons about "mixing in other worlds," as Raymond puts it, come with harsh prices for everyone.

Haynes has said that the "strongest melodramas are those without apparent villains, where characters end up hurting each other unwittingly, just by pursuing their desires" and that's the case here. Pain is both masked and laid bare; when Frank begins to sob, the very sight frightens his children and triggers tears in his daughter.

In a softly curled, blond wig, Moore beautifully embodies a woman trapped by the times and her conflicting desires, emotions and responsibilities. In delicate silk chiffon scarves and dresses that flatter her figure -- with their wide, tight belts and skirts that fall in contrasting pleats -- she is stunning to all the men in the room except the one who matters most.

Fresh from "The Rookie," Quaid captures the complexion of a tightly wound man who seems ready to explode. That famous, sexy grin of his makes a wonderful disguise and when he drops it, anger and anguish bleed through. Haysbert's Raymond, meanwhile, is almost too good to be true, which proves to be his downfall in assuming the world is as open-minded as he is.

Haynes, working with an excellent cast and period detail of homes, cars and children largely seen but not heard, evokes a mindset, a moral code and a movie style that are part of our collective past. And that still resonate in the present.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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