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Far from Heaven - Todd Haynes, Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert

Threat advisory: High - High risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

Cathy (Julianne Moore) is the perfect 50s housewife, living the perfect 50s life: healthy kids, successful husband and social prominence. Then one night she discovers her husband Frank's (Dennis Quaid) infidelity and her tidy world starts spinning out of control. In her confusion and grief, she finds consolation in the friendship of their African-American gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) - a socially taboo relationship that leads to the further disintegration of life as she knew it. Despite Cathy and Frank's struggle to keep their marriage afloat, the reality of his indiscretion and her feelings for Raymond open a painful, if more honest, chapter in their lives.

Theatrical propaganda posters

Far from Heaven image

Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film drama 1950s nuclear family adultery gay marriage divorce relationship

Persons of interest

  • Julianne Moore .... Cathy Whitaker
  • Dennis Quaid .... Frank Whitaker
  • Dennis Haysbert .... Raymond Deagan
  • Patricia Clarkson .... Eleonor Fine
  • Viola Davis .... Sybil
  • James Rebhorn .... Doctor Bowman
  • Bette Henritze .... Mrs Leacock
  • Michael Gaston .... Stan Fine
  • Ryan Ward .... David Whitaker
  • Lindsay Andretta .... Janice Whitaker
  • Jordan Puryear .... Sarah Deagan
  • Kyle Timothy Smith .... Billy Hutchinson
  • Celia Weston .... Mona Lauder
  • Barbara Garrick .... Doreen
  • Olivia Birkelund .... Nancy
  • Stevie Ray Dallimore .... Dick Dawson
  • Mylika Davis .... Esther
  • Todd Haynes .... Screenwriter
  • Todd Haynes .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Agent Provocateur Alexander Feld

Theatrical report

Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven is an odd creature, a contemporary film set in the 1950s, stylised in arch-1950s fashion, but armoured with enough social and aesthetic commentary to place it unquestionably post-millennium.

The 1950s was perhaps the acme of the American nation. This may seem a leap of faith now, with its empire in physical and moral uncertainty, but then it seemed secured in granite. It may be more difficult to grasp that the USA was then the fountainhead of Western culture, defining both "popular" and "high". Sorry Europe, your sun had set. The age of Eisenhower was the time of the Beats, Disney sketched alongside Jackson Pollock, I love Lucy bleeped onto TVs opposite Playhouse 90, Giant fought for drive-in screens with The searchers, Elvis sold vinyl alongside Miles Davis and Leonard Bernstein.

In cinema, one 50s director can be seen in retrospect as a bridge between these sides. Douglas Sirk was renowned for "women's" pictures, but critically dismissed as melodramatic and syrupy. (It was, after all, the era of John Ford, King Vidor and George Stevens.) A celebrated Brechtian theatre director who fled Hitler's Germany, Sirk proved to be a Hollywood workhorse, producing a cache of what can best be described as "B" pictures. He found a fan club in French and German auteurs of the 1960s, and is one of the major influences on Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The great German also acted in Sirk's final film, Bourbon Street blues, and directed his own Sirk tribute, Ali: fear eats the soul.

Shot in an expressionistic period Technicolour, dramatically overblown to the point of burlesque, and drenched in ghastly Rachmaninoffian music, Sirk's films nonetheless contained artistic merit and social consciousness. He often coaxed stars of the second rank - Lana Turner was one of his favourites - to deliver performances of exceptional depth. His best women are intricately drawn, intelligent and emotionally complex beings. (In this regard, one must seriously consider his potential influence on Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen.) Sirk's two strongest efforts, Imitation of life (1958) and All that Heaven allows (1955) both cautiously explore social taboos of the times: Imitation, nine years before Stanley Kramer's Guess who's coming to dinner, addresses race in a newly integrated USA, whereas Heaven takes on the older woman-younger man coupling.

Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven, an unabashed homage to Sirk, can essentially be seen as a pastiche of these two films. Can this be from the director who gave us the sassy Velvet goldmine? Or what about that savage gem of a short, Superstar: the Karen Carpenter story, in which the doomed crooner is played by a Barbie doll? Well, yes... it just takes a while to realise what Haynes is doing.

In the autumnal New England gold of 1957, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) lives a life of greeting card perfection. She has two ideal children, a black maid, a hip Moderne split-level house, a successful husband, a pastel station wagon the size of an ocean liner, and one hell of a wardrobe. Ah, Elysium... affluent American suburbia in the 1950s. Not for much longer. The Connecticut Lady Chatterley soon discovers her own gardener, in this case a handsome black man, contemplating a tree, and things begin to unravel.

Raymond, played with restraint and dignity by Dennis Haysbert, is the son of Cathy's recently deceased gardener, taking over Dad's job. Here the two Sirk plot lines meet, the racial element of Imitation of life and the romance of All that Heaven allows. (In Heaven, wealthy, widowed and lonely Jane Wyman falls for her gardener, played as a veritable fertility god symbol by Rock Hudson. How's that for casting?) So we already have the racial element and the forbidden love ingredient, but Haynes' will toss one more shot into the cocktail shaker. Cathy's husband Frank (Dennis Quaid) frequents the balconies of movie theatres, and a neon-lit speak-easy that is probably Hartford's only gay bar. Add to this a Greek Chorus of noisy, repressed neighbours and busybody friends and you have the makings of an interesting pic.

The 50s may not be a totally different era but they have been so effectively reproduced that they might as well have been the 1850s. Every detail of Mark Friedberg's production design is spot on, Edward Lachman's cinematography achieves the director's desired effect without going (too far) over the top, and Sandy Powell's costumes are a ideal, if stylised, realisation. And underneath it all (yes, there is a hefty dose of period-style underscoring) is Elmer Bernstein's pulsing, throbbing, swooping score. It's all a bit much, but hey, that's the idea.

This sort of picture will clearly pass or fail based on the strength of the leading lady, and Julianne Moore does not disappoint. Elaborately costumed, wigged and gowned in period grandeur, Moore's Cathy is suitably studied, multi-dimensional and complex. Portraying a woman whose entire world collapses around her in one season, Moore is able to convey all the love, curiosity, generosity and basic humanity in the role with a mannered grace and dignity that totally breathes with the zeitgeist. (It is almost a misfortune that this performance will unfairly be compared with Moore's similar role in The hours.)

Dennis Quaid, doing some of his best work, is ideal, a twisted accrual of booze, cigarettes and suppression, ostensibly trapped in his grey sharkskin. In a difficult scene, his admission to his wife of love for another man, Quaid particularly shines. Patricia Clarkson is sinfully good as the confidante who unravels when coloureds and queers become just too much, and Viola Davis, in the role of the maid, plays a difficult part to perfection.

But make no mistake, this is a Director's film, and a deeply individual one at that. There are endless Garbo-esque close-ups of the maudlin, pondering Ms Moore, grating camera angles, and an overall languid pace. The script, although well-structured, has some run-ins with absurdity. The very outdoors themselves seem set decorated; leaves appear to blow on cue. Some moments are so hyper-charged that one could be watching a horror flick, at other times one thinks of Saturday night live parodies. The black and white worlds of segregated Hartford seem not from separate reels, but from different colour universes. In truth, the cinematography is so stylised one gets the sensation that Haynes is shooting colour metaphor; lavender seems a particular obsession. One scene, in which Cathy and Raymond share a walk in the autumn woods, approaches animation: brown skinned Raymond is dressed in browns and earth tones, fading into the landscape, while Cathy is wardrobed in a pastel explosion. The point is clearly made. The effect, like the visual, is near cartoon.

This is indeed innovative, inventive filmmaking, but when moments of bare realistic drama finally appear (Raymond's young daughter attacked by white schoolboys, Frank spewing drunken profanity, domestic violence, men kissing) it is almost as if the actors had suddenly decided to sing Puccini.

Nevertheless, Far from Heaven is an original and unique work. Haynes has returned to the 50s melodrama, deconstructed it, and put it back together again. He uses storylines and plots that were inconsiderable to Sirk, and shows them in a post-millennium light in a 1950s manner. The emotional intensity desired by the director is probably not possible in conventional Styles, and the resulting work, both film and film criticism in one, offers an absorbing look at an almost distant era.

Media intelligence (DVD)

  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound
  • Languages: English
  • Picture: Widescreen (1.85:1/16:9)
  • Subtitles: English, English captions

Security censorship classification

M (Adult themes, low level coarse language)

Surveillance time

107 minutes (1:47 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 6 February 2003
DVD rental: 9 July 2003
VHS rental: 9 July 2003
DVD retail: 9 July 2003
VHS retail: 9 July 2003

Cinema surveillance images

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