In mood, tone and overall plot development Todd Hayne’s Far From Heaven (2002) is an evocative homage to Douglas Sirk; the 1950’s director extraordinaire of syrupy over-the-top soap opera melodramas. Sirk’s particular brand of schlocky nonsense has always escaped this reviewer’s admiration, although there is little to deny that for his time he was considered bar none the leading authority in this type of campy melodrama.
Hayne’s emulation of ‘the master’ is a stunning recreation of Sirk's visual lushness to be sure, but regrettably without Sirk's cleverness to solicit some sort of epic grandeur from simple middle class dilemmas. Revisiting the idyllic 1950s through less than rose-colored glasses is hardly an ambitious pursuit. Yet, there is a faint aroma of formaldehyde permeating Hayne’s exploitation of that absurd quest for the deepest shag rug and most prominent fins on each new car.
The plot concerns dutiful wife and mother, Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) whose serene domesticity is forever shattered when she discovers that her handsome ad executive husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid) has been engaging young men to satisfy his homosexual double life.
The film plays fast and loose with Frank’s feeble attempts to break himself of his homo-erotic tendencies (in post war America it was thought that homosexuality could be ‘cured’) – a struggle of emotions that eventually leads to an emotional rift and permanent split with Cathy. In the meantime, Cathy’s feelings of inadequacy push her closer to an even more taboo interracial love affair with groundskeeper Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert).
Hayne’s social commentary on both the rigidity and hypocrisies of vintage Americana is clearly the star of this film. However, he is hampered in his delivery of that 'message’ by leaden performances from Quaid in particular but also Moore. There simply is zero chemistry between these two. One wonders, for example, how Cathy could have been fooled for so long into thinking her husband was heterosexual. Frank’s ‘transgressions’ are presented as sudden and almost freak occurrences. For an audience, it is as though he awoke one morning and decided to switch sexual preferences.
The ‘affair’ between Cathy and Raymond is even more problematic – not for its interracial content – but because there seems to be zero spark to propel it anywhere. Cathy’s antiseptic WASP is chronically constipated from going all the way by her own inability to commit to a different skin color, while Raymond’s cultured reserve is more nonchalant than apprehensive – robbing us of all possible passion and melodramatic tension. In the end, Far from Heaven is far from perfect entertainment. It is a story of improbable and utterly flawed romantic longing set against a ‘50s pastiche of suburbian backyard landscapes.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray greatly improves on the multitude of sins committed on their DVD transfer. The image is really quite stunning. Colors are rich, vibrant and nicely balanced, recapturing the Sirk-esque lushness that Haynes is aiming for. Contrast levels are accurately rendered. Blacks are solid, deep and velvety. Whites are pristine. The DVD's edge enhancement and some shimmering of fine details is gone from the Blu-ray. The soundtrack has been remastered but is still 5.1 and adequately rendered for this dialogue driven movie.
Extras are all imports from the DVD and include a very self-congratulatory featurette in which director Hayne's explains how he believes he did Douglas Sirk one better. Aside: like Richard Attenborough's heavy-handed handling of Miracle on 34th Street (1994) or Gus Van Sant's shot for shot remake of Psycho (1998) - this simply can't be done! Why won’t Hollywood admit as much?
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)