Todd Haynes’ last film, 1998’s glam-bam Velvet Goldmine, announced his affection for affecting a specific style to a wider audience than any of his previous efforts. He’ll expand on those numbers again with Far From Heaven, a takeoff on Douglas Sirk’s overwrought, color-saturated 1950s melodramas that rises above its camp roots and converts artifice into art.
Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, a housewife who might be bored if she wasn’t so busy pasting on smiles for her friends and neighbors. As in any good melodrama, her world is rocked not once, but twice. Her husband (Dennis Quaid), working on moving his alcoholism beyond the social realm, realizes that he is gay; her gardener dies, and his educated, well-spoken son (Dennis Haysbert) takes over the business and forms an instant connection with her. The film explores two loves that dare not speak their names, homosexual and interracial, and the final moments are wrenching in their unfairness. It’s a stark contrast to the start of the film, which looks as though it might be an out-and-out satire.
Moore and Quaid are good — very, very good — but Haysbert is even better. His performance is written in his eyes and his soft chuckle, and when he looks at Moore, it’s completely conceivable how she could throw away her stance in society for what might be love.
That Haynes spent the four years in between films watching the likes of Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life on endless repeat is a given. That he was able to get beyond the glossy surface of Sirk’s work and crack the closely guarded nut of social interplay and emotion is an achievement, taking the soapy content (as well as other elements) of All That Heaven Allows and transforming it into Far From Heaven. It’s an arresting transformation, made all the more powerful by the fact that we, as viewers, are not caught up in the time period of the film.
There’s a palpable distance involved in watching a movie that takes place 50 years ago, instead of 50 days ago. And when Far From Heaven turns the corner from winking, jeepers and golly and shucks-laden Technicolor dazzle to actual emotion — when Moore moves from Donna Reed to human — the film vaults beyond the tightly wrought constraints of its forebears, throws off its wolf’s coat of vibrant colors and reveals a dark poignancy that captures both heart and mind.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Birmingham 8 (Old Woodward, S. of Maple, Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.