Writer-director Todd Haynes's loving re-creation of a 1950s-style Hollywood melodrama (think Douglas Sirk) is a puzzling affair. Watching Far From Heaven is like taking a trip back in time -- not to the real world of 1957, but to the reel '50s, as personified by such classic "women's films" as All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. Haynes's homage is to a film genre, and while he has caught the look and feel of those Technicolor, wide-screen weepies just about perfectly, the viewer is left wondering to what end he has done so.
The film is set in an upper-middle-class suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, where manicured lawns, perfectly accessorized houses, and fashionably attired homemakers bespeak privilege, contentment, and conformity. Cathy Whitaker (an impeccable Julianne Moore) is the exemplary '50s housewife and mother: beautiful, modestly stylish, happily married to a successful sales executive, active in civic organizations, and a wonderful party hostess. Suddenly, without warning, Cathy's well-ordered life is thrown into turmoil when she discovers her husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) in the arms of . . . a man.
Unable to confide even in her best friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), Cathy bravely carries on, masking her hurt and confusion, and gallantly maintaining the pretense of a perfect life. Adding to her woes, she finds that her budding friendship with her black gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) has roused the disdain and disapproval of her smug, white social circle. Good heavens; what would Jane Wyman have done?
The question is not inappropriate, given that Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Safe) openly acknowledges that his latest feature is not only a throwback to the glossy Hollywood melodramas of yesteryear, but an actual "homage." Indeed, from its opening shot of burnt-orange autumn leaves -- the camera drifting through the treetops until settling on a busy, slightly disembodied Hartford street below -- Far From Heaven is an unparalleled visual re-creation, a cinematic doppelgänger if ever there was one.
In terms of framing, composition, color, light and shadow, camera movement, musical score, and costume, Haynes and his talented production team -- cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell, and composer Elmer Bernstein -- have nailed the genre. We see Moore, sitting at the wheel of her car against a blue-screened backdrop of passing roadside scenery; we hear the studied pauses and cadenced speech patterns, which reveal inner turmoil and repressed emotions; we witness the almost campy expressions of shock and disapproval, which greet Cathy when she tries to strike up a friendship with her black gardener -- the hired help and the race card rolled into one.
Some people may be tempted to titter at these excesses, but Haynes is playing it absolutely straight. This is no campy rendition of a '50s-era melodrama any more than the original films were intended to elicit laughter. (It still boggles the mind that anyone could take Dorothy Malone's over-the-top performance as a trampy rich girl in Written on the Wind seriously, yet the role brought her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.)
The cast probably had a blast studying their '50s counterparts. While most of the actors range from serviceable to good, only Julianne Moore and Viola Davis, in the small role of the Whitakers' black maid, excel. Moore doesn't make one false move as Cathy. Smiling through her tears, she really is the embodiment of a certain kind of '50s womanhood.
The question that keeps nagging at the viewer, however, is why did Haynes make this picture? Was it intended strictly as a tribute to the Sirkian-style melodrama, or is he trying to draw a parallel between society as it was and society as it is? Bigotry, hypocrisy, and complacency remain as American as apple pie, but if Haynes intended the film as a critique or social commentary, why not set the story in contemporary times? It certainly would have had more impact.
If the point was to update the genre -- race and class were permissible issues for screen consideration back then, while homosexuality was not -- then why not beef up what essentially fritters away to little more than a plot device? As it stands, Cathy is rejected by her social circle because of her relationship with her gardener. We don't see her being shunned or gossiped about because of Frank's "secret." Making that a bigger component of the story might have added considerable weight to the film.
In the end, Far From Heaven feels more like a mere exercise, as if Haynes just wanted to see if he could "pull it off." In many ways, of course, he succeeds in this endeavor. If you entered the theater not knowing what you were about to see, you'd swear you were watching a film actually made back in the '50s. The visual presentation is that convincing -- and not many films can make that claim. Dramatically, however, the film falls short. When all is said and done, Far From Heaven proves an easier film to appreciate than to emotionally embrace. It fails the test of being, in the descriptive phrase of Pauline Kael, "compulsively watchable."