Dir: Todd Haynes. US. 2002. 107 mins.
In painstakingly recreating the style and mood of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven attempts to show that prejudice is as rampant in the complacent America of the new millenium as it was behind the twitching net curtains of Sirk's affluent 1950s suburbs. Unfortunately, for all the magnificent elements Haynes allows us here, his new film pales beside his classics Poison and Safe as a portrait of a crumbling society. His discomfiting ability to get under the puritanical skin of the US is hampered here by the confines of imitative homage.
The box-office response, however, will be a different story. For upscale audiences, this opulent melodrama, which opens in the US on Nov 8 after its Venice competition premiere, will be a must-see. And like the Sirk films from which it is derived, it could eat into the powerful female crossover audience which patronises women's movies such as Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Stepmom.
Like US distributor Focus Features, foreign distributors should think big. This is not the disturbing arthouse fare Haynes has previously delivered; it is an accessible and polished women's story which will be welcomed by women from all moviegoing demographics. Awareness should also be high: the costumes from the film will be splashed across the pages of fashion magazines throughout the world in the next six months.
Set in affluent and reactionary Hartford, Connecticut, in autumn 1957, the film centres on the Whitaker family. Frank (Quaid, out of his depth in a complicated role), Cathy (Moore) and their two children are a model unit, written up as such in the local newspaper and fixtures on the snobby social circuit of the town peopled by gossipy women like Mona Lauder (Celia Weston).
But cracks appear in Cathy's idyllic life when she discovers Frank kissing a man in his office one night. As she realises that her married life is a sham and that her husband will never want her, she turns to the widowed gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). Unable to find an ally more supportive than Raymond, Cathy crosses the line of acceptable fraternisation in Hartford and, in addition to her straying husband, faces the loss of her best friend (scene-stealing Patricia Clarkson), her house and her place in society.
Central to the film's appeal is Haynes' Safe star Julianne Moore who is sublime as his Jane Wyman. Draped in expert costumier Sandy Powell's impeccable 1950s outfits, Moore transforms from a submissive society wife to a passionate woman eager to buck convention with the same intensity with which she gradually deteriorated in Safe. She is mesmerising, and the awards attention she will inevitably receive will only keep the film in theatres and grosses rising.
Moore is rarely off the screen, a reassuring presence which counters the tonal inconsistencies of the film. Haynes apes Sirk with such fidelity as recreate the same arcane dialogue and stiff delivery, suggesting condescending parody at first rather than affectionate homage. This conceit diminishes as the film's drama unfolds, as does the side-story about Moore's husband coming to terms with his homosexuality - a plot device which could have offered a fascinating insight into the 1950s gay underworld.
Haynes and his cameraman, the accomplished Ed Lachman, soak Far From Heaven in lush autumnal colours a la Sirk - complete with more falling leaves than have been seen on film for years - and, as in all Haynes' films, the look is ravishing.
Prod cos: Killer Films, John Wells Prods, Section Eight, Vulcan Prods
US dist: Focus Features
Int'l sales: TF1 International, Focus International
Exec prods: Jody Patton, Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, John Wells, Eric Robison, John Sloss
Prod: Christine Vachon, Jody Patton
Scr: Todd Haynes
Cinematography: Ed Lachman
Prod des: Mark Friedberg
Ed: James Lyons
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Main cast: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, Celia Weston