Thursday 1 October 2020

Movie Review: Far From Heaven (2002)

A drama about turmoil beneath the veneer of suburban normalcy, Far From Heaven is too busy with theatrical stylistic overtures to register the necessary emotional tones.

The setting is Hartford, Connecticut in the late 1950s. Cathy and Frank Whitaker (Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid) are superficially the ideal and successful married couple with two young children. She is a full-time homemaker, while he is a hardworking executive with an electronics firm. Cathy has a circle of close friends, including Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson).

The veneer of perfection cracks when Cathy catches Frank with a male lover. He starts therapy sessions to try and treat his homosexuality, and their relationship suffers. She embarks on a friendship with her Black gardener Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert), a well-educated small business owner and the widowed father of a young daughter. But suburban Hartford is not ready for interracial friendship, and Cathy is soon the subject of vicious community gossip.

Despite poking at important social topics and enjoying a shiny aesthetic, Far From Heaven is burdened with an off-putting self-aware artificiality. Director and writer Todd Haynes is less interested in recreating the actual 1950s but rather presents a nostalgia-tinted view filtered through the flicker of dramatic movies from the era. The result lands somewhere between mocking and mimicking the cinematic creations of the Eisenhower years, Far From Heaven carrying stiff and unrealistic dialogue, exaggerated acting, indulgently coordinated women's outfits, and over-zealously saturated colours.

The phony facade overwhelms the attempts at viable social commentary. Haynes takes aim at two obvious targets in the form of painfully outdated attitudes towards homosexuality and racism lurking beneath liberal pretense. The themes compete for screen time and neither gains meaningful traction. Frank's sexuality fades in and out of the film, Haynes choosing not to enter the therapy room. And the tentative romance between Cathy and Raymond does not earn the attempts at a poignant resolution, flailing instead in over-torqued territory.

Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid struggle against the material but buckle under the strain of bewildering mannerisms and stiff conversations, their performances distinctly derivative. Far From Heaven overinvests in flair, and strays far from substance.

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