Sometimes we can see the truth more clearly through the artifice of fiction, the present more intensely though the prism of the past. In Todd Haynes' great new movie melodrama "Far From Heaven" - set in Hartford, Conn., 1957 - the pristine suburban streets, discreet repressions and lurid passions may seem far removed from our world today. But Haynes makes them achingly close.
From the moment the camera looks down on his fictionalized New England "paradise," moving overhead from a high church steeple through a fiery latticework of autumn leaves, the movie catches us in a web of silken style, just as it catches its characters - a repressed housewife (Julianne Moore), a closeted gay husband (Dennis Quaid) and a black gardener (Dennis Haysbert) - in devious traps of Eisenhower-era social convention and sexual mores.
The story is simple, but only on the surface. Using the "women's pictures" of Douglas Sirk as his model, Haynes shows us a seemingly perfect '50s couple who fall from a heaven of prosperity and prominence into a hell of secret deviance, taboos and social disgrace. As usual in this kind of story, a good woman suffers amid bourgeois splendor. The marriage and impeccable household of socialite Cathy Whitaker (Moore) and husband Frank (Quaid) is dissolving, as Frank succumbs more and more to a secret homosexual life in movie theaters and gay bars. As Frank strays, the devoted Cathy finds a possible consolation in her handsome gardener, Ray Deagan (Haysbert), an ideal lover in every way except - at least in the eyes of their genteel, bigoted neighbors - for his race.
Frank, decent but tormented, tries to "cure" his sexuality with therapy, but he indulges his lusts in secret. Cathy and Ray, on the other hand, carry on a platonic but fairly open friendship that scandalizes the town and alienates their neighbors, white and black alike. And as these forbidden passions increasingly invade all their lives, the social supports that protect them begin to crumble. Like many classic Hollywood romances - and "Far From Heaven" richly deserves that description - this is a story of how love hurts and alters lives, but unlike many of its models, "Heaven" shows how it can shatter those lives irrevocably as well.
There's an incongruous but ravishing beauty in "Far From Heaven," and in its three excellent central performances, that counteracts the seeming kitschiness of the story. The film's visual poetry, with the autumnal gold of its exterior scenes, creates an almost shivery mood of mingled desire and despair. When Cathy loses a lavender scarf in the fall breeze - and Ray, finding it on a branch, softly hands it to her in the Whitaker back yard-it's like their romance: evanescent, fragile, written on the wind.
Haynes does several things superbly well in "Heaven," but one of the most remarkable is the way he summons up the past by capturing the look and feel of the 1950s movies, the whole grammar of Hollywood Golden Age romance. "Far From Heaven" was inspired by the "maternal melodramas" of director Sirk, including "Written on the Wind" (1956), "Imitation of Life" (1959) and especially "All that Heaven Allows" (1955), in which another repressed Norman Rockwell-town matron (Jane Wyman, a widow) fell in love with another handsome but socially "unacceptable" gardener (Rock Hudson). And Haynes gets Sirk's style spookily right: the polish and symbolism of his decor, the stillness and gravity of his shots, the rich transparency and star charisma of his actors and their performances.
But Haynes goes a step beyond what Sirk could do in his own "Heaven" - the director was under orders to end his film happily (with Jane and Rock together), at a time when honest depictions of racism and homosexuality were still almost a decade away. Haynes makes more explicit the whole stratum of near-hysterical emotions that lay seething under the impeccable glamour of those films. And though "Far From Heaven" is a picture where, superficially, moral decorum is observed (we see only a handful of kisses between any of these lovers), Haynes always lets us sense the passions and possibility screened or quenched by the hypocrisies of the time.
Moore is absolutely brilliant in this film, as she was portraying an even more repressed bourgeois in Haynes' 1995 "Safe." Playing the sort of role that would have been ideal in the '50s for the former Mrs. Ronald Reagan (Wyman), Deborah Kerr ("Tea and Sympathy") or even Doris Day ("The Man Who Knew Too Much"), Moore gives us both a lovingly crafted archetype and a living, breathing woman. She tries wholeheartedly to be good and true in a world built for lies. Quaid and Haysbert are amazingly good, too, in equally archetypal roles, recalling '50s Fred MacMurray or young Jack Lemmon (in Quaid's case) and the young Sidney Poitier (in Haysbert's). And so is Patricia Clarkson in the old Agnes Moorehead part of the loyal, acid-tongued friend.
As the radical gay director who made the Jean Genet-inspired "Poison" (1991) and the David Bowie/Iggy Pop-inspired "Velvet Goldmine" (1998), Haynes has a different approach and agenda than the more mainstream (and heterosexual) filmmakers who are his main models in "Heaven": Sirk, Max Ophuls ("The Reckless Moment") and John Stahl ("Leave Her to Heaven"). He's trying to capture an audience of the happy few rather than sending subversive artistic messages disguised as popular entertainment.
The pleasures of "Far From Heaven" are those of a typical humanist-idealist romance, engaging our emotions on primal gut levels. But they're also the joys of an almost flawlessly realized objet d'art: a movie where everything - the gorgeously symbolic production design, Ed Lachman's glowing cinematography and the movingly evocative period score by that great, still-vital '50s veteran Elmer Bernstein ("Some Came Running," "To Kill a Mockingbird") - work to waft us back to a recaptured past which now makes perfect sense of an imperfect world. It's a near-perfect film, too, even if its loves and lies are written in the wind.
4 stars (out of 4)
"Far From Heaven"
Directed and written by Todd Haynes; inspired by the film "All That Heaven Allows," written by Peggy Fenwick and directed by Douglas Sirk; photographed by Edward Lachman; edited by James Lyons; production designed by Mark Friedberg; costumes designed by Sandy Powell; music by Elmer Bernstein; executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney; produced by Christine Vachon, Jody Patton. A Focus Features release; opens Friday, Nov. 15. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG-13 (language and sexual content).
Cathy Whitaker - Julianne Moore
Frank Whitaker - Dennis Quaid
Raymond Deagan - Dennis Haysbert
Eleanor Fine - Patricia Clarkson
Sybil - Viola Davis Dr. Bowman - James Rebhorn