A review of “Far From Heaven” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for mild language, adult situations

Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

 

 

Writer/director Todd Haynes (“Velvet Goldmine”) presents his most ambitious project to date, subtly scraping the shellac off the façade of a blissful, 1950s marriage.

Peyton Place” meets “American Beauty” in 1957 Hartford, Connecticut, where the kids are continually clean behind the ears, mom is in full dress and make-up by breakfast, and the foliage displays its radiant hues without shame. 

Behind the manicured lawns of domestic Americana lies a sinister worm of truth. Pleasantville is not so pleasant when happy homemaker Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) catches her successful, sales exec hubby Frank (Dennis Quaid) in a compromising position, after-hours and behind closed doors.

Piling scandal onto scandal, a privately bereft Cathy finds comfort in meaningful encounters with her erudite gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert).  As a friendship slowly develops, small-town tongues start to wag. Raymond is black, and fraternizing with people of color is Just Not Done. 

Haynes goes out on a limb to make his point, sometimes in inches but  more often miles.  The wholesomeness of the affluent American home and decent American values is exaggerated to a fault, all “gee-whiz” and “jiminy” and “your slippers and a cocktail, dear”?  Period clothes and set design are a riot of color, illuminating the contradiction of intolerance and squeaky-clean Eisenhower-era perfection.

Moore works like the dickens to keep the tone just shy of absurd. Her job as the resident female is to put a Good Face on it all, while suffocating with a yearning she cannot acknowledge.  Quaid is allowed the freedom to emote because his turmoil is skimming the surface.  Haysbert’s role is not easily defined, therefore more easily rendered.  The downside of Haynes’ well-crafted façade (so saturated with political correctness that it has to collapse) is that it exudes an arms-length aura that’s difficult to penetrate, both emotionally and intellectually.

By all means let’s celebrate the quintessential women’s films, the good-old American soap-opera, and the sugar-coated tolerance of a demanding decade. Todd Haynes has created an elegant and understated film, and I admire him for the effort.