Simply put, Todd Haynes' "Far from Heaven" is a ravishingly beautiful film. An achingly sincere melodrama (now, when's the last time you saw one of those?) inspired by the '50s "women's movies" of director Douglas Sirk, it's a glorious wallow in autumnal color and pale, perfect light. And for its splendid actors, "Heaven" is a chance to find genuine, heartbreaking emotion within what, in lesser hands, might have been just an exercise in style.
Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore, a vision in blond wig and red lipstick) appears to have the perfect '50s life — as wife to Frank, a successful Connecticut businessman (Dennis Quaid), and mother to two charming children, she strolls through the rooms of her impeccably ordered house like the benign captain of a ship. "My life," she tells a society-page interviewer, in breathy, even tones, "is like any other wife and mother's."
That may be so, but Cathy's life is soon transformed, both by her husband's dark secret (the sort of thing that could only be hinted at in '50s Hollywood) and by her own blossoming friendship with Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), the kind and sensitive black man who tends her garden. While Cathy and Raymond's relationship remains impeccably innocent, the town sees things in another light.
All this sounds melodramatic, and of course it is — the movies that Haynes so lovingly evokes were sweepingly over-the-top. But it's also a telling examination of women's roles. While both Frank and Raymond have other options available to them, Cathy must remain in her elegant fortress, taking care of the children and remembering the grocery list. When we last see her, driving away in her baby-blue car, it's no accident that both the children are with her — she's carefully scheduled a poignant moment of farewell in order to fit in with her daily errands.
In making so careful a homage, Haynes is very close to camp territory, and some might say he crosses that line — there was a bit of laughter at a recent screening. But Haynes has drawn such exquisite performances — without a trace of irony — that pared-down sincerity shines through every scene. Quaid, whose broad-faced handsomeness perfectly suits a '50s fedora, finds Frank's confusion, anger and desperation, kept mostly hidden behind a big-man-on-campus swagger.
Haysbert, faced with the task of being impossibly noble, pulls it off with gentleness and intelligence. And Moore, whose Cathy is likewise too good for this world, lets us see this tightly controlled woman's facade trembling. Her careful purr of a voice conceals emotions, but her smile grows hollow, and when she weeps, it's devastating.
And lavish praise should be heaped on Edward Lachman's exquisitely composed cinematography, Mark Friedberg's retro-perfect interior design, and Sandy Powell's riotously colorful '50s fashions.
In one scene, Cathy and her luncheon guests wear coordinating shades of russet, rose and umber; they're like the individual flowers in an autumn bouquet. We see a red car shining like a brand-new lollipop; a sapphire-blue dress in harsh contrast with the garish green of a police station. Color plays a starring role in this film, and it's heavenly.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.