In a way, I am worried for the audience who goes to see "Far From Heaven" and only sees a look into the past. For a film that so often talks about its characters seeing through the surface, beyond the obvious and the superficial, one can only hope that the viewer will do the same. "Far From Heaven" is a beautiful, divine drama that instantly enraptures and grabs the heart, but director/writer Todd Haynes does not want his audience to leave the theater only with scorn for days past.
It is 1957 in a picture-perfect Hartford, Connecticut. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) is the proud wife of Frank Whitaker (Dennis Quaid), a successful head honcho for Magnatech Television, and the mother of two adoring kids. She is known as "Mrs. Magnatech", and with her friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), she organizes get-togethers and parties for the company. Things seem to be going splendidly in the life of this 50s housewife.
That is, until one night when she decides to bring her husband some dinner at work, and she catches him in the arms of another man. Bewildered and confused, Cathy encourages Frank to try and work this "problem" out, and Frank will not let it ruin his marriage; he thinks he can "lick it". As tensions build between the two, Cathy turns to the only person she can: her gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), someone she knows she can trust. However, Raymond is black, and while that shouldn't be a problem, this is 1957. Romantic subtext begins to emerge, and it will become more and more of a problem for the two to be seen in public.
First of all, "Far From Heaven" is a slice of pure movie bliss. Todd Haynes is evidently someone who genuinely loves movies, as even the first shots of this sweeping melodrama are glorious reminders of the magnificence of the dramas of the 50's, particularly those of Douglas Sirk (as Haynes's direction here has often been compared to). "Far From Heaven" has a certain aesthetic, perfectly over-beautified feel that will never let us forget that this experience we are being a part of is a movie.
The word I would use to describe the performances from this ensemble is: sublime. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, and even Patricia Clarkson give career-shaping performances here. What each of them and their supporting cast brilliantly decides to do here is not reach for age-old prototypes of the suburban families of the 50's from so many movies before this, but instead, look at these as real people and do not hold themselves accountable for or judge any of their actions.
There is an offset here that Todd Haynes is trying to create here, with the nearly oversaturated movie world merging with the painstakingly real performances. When we see "Far From Heaven", we see the stylistic surface Haynes creates. With weak actors, that would make this an almost shallow film. However, the transcendent performances break through the surface and begin to dig deeper... so as we go deeper with them, we begin to question. We see "Far From Heaven" not as a film about the late 50's; but a film about today. This is intentional. With this film, Haynes holds up a mirror to his audience, challenging them to go deeper and deeper below the "surface of things", as Cathy Whittaker puts it.
We ask ourselves: "Is this kind of racism and homophobia really gone today?" The kind of racism Haynes is depicting is not the overt, open kind that festered the minds of many in the South (and still does), but the kind that people don't want to admit. It's the kind of racism that grows without people realizing it. It's a kind of social complacency, where people declare themselves as not prejudiced but carry an unspoken, passive racism and homophobia that feeds on stereotypes and keeps people segregated. Todd Haynes is asking us here to look at this film not as a legend of times past, but of things that go on in our world, here and now.
So, in "Far From Heaven", Todd Haynes has made three films: one about the 50's, one about the glorious melodramas from that period, and most importantly, a film about present day. As time goes by (and with multiple viewings), I do not doubt that more layers and depths will uncover themselves. "Far From Heaven" is both a beautiful, powerful film and a challenge: see yourselves and the people around you in this story, not just characters. It is this that makes this without a doubt, the most important, greatest, and simply my favorite film of the year.