Movie Review by Toby White
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis
Director: Todd Haynes
Surprises are few and far between in contemporary cinema. Not a ‘surprise’ in the sense of a moment or a scene being unpredictable, or suspenseful, for those will always be a storyteller’s staple, more that an entire film could be a surprise in itself and FAR FROM HEAVEN is a surprising movie, in every respect.
Take the story for one: it’s about a privileged housewife (Julianne Moore) who discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is having a gay affair. As they make steps to address this ‘problem’ for the benefit of their children and the security of their family, even seeking ‘professional’ help – a doctor attempts to treat him as though he has a disease – she, too, begins an extramarital encounter, this time with her gardener, an African-American.
Surprising? This may not seem so bizarre in contemporary society but FAR FROM HEAVEN is set in 1950s America. And not just ‘set’ in 50s America but the whole composition of the film, the production design, the cinematography, the style of direction, the acting, is a throwback to that time. Essentially, it’s an anachronism. It’s as though you’re watching a ’50s film and there are these unbelievably bizarre plot lines going on: homosexuality, inter-racial relationships, things that would never have been dared on film at the time. Director Todd Haynes has lifted the veneer from our candy bar impression of that era and revealed things that must have been evident but social circumstances never allowed to reach the surface.
Haynes makes no secret of the influence of filmmakers John Stahl and Douglas Sirk, particularly the latter’s visual style, in creating this maternal melodrama. “Who?” you may ask, and you’d not be blamed for not knowing of them. But even if you haven’t seen their work – I admit, I haven’t – it shouldn’t diminish your enjoyment of this movie any more that if you had, only that you would imagine being able to appreciate the finer points of this film all the more.
It’s no mean feat that Haynes has created this wonderful parody of ’50s life – or ‘movie’ life at any rate – and thrown seemingly contemporary issues into the mix. One can almost sense that here is a filmmaker who wants to bring a passion of his – in this case the 1950s – to a contemporary audience but instead of guns, explosions and adrenaline he substitutes dysfunctionality, homosexuality and bigotry. What results is a wonderful bittersweet sting at our impression of a bygone era – the way the children are played in this film is priceless – revealing the repressive beast who’s heart beats beneath the superficial and obsequious nature of customs and values we associate with the time. Now there’s a surprise.