Far From Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes’ sterile, domestic melodrama à la Douglas Sirk, is an exercise in how to beautifully execute a facsimile. Starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert as walking mannequins, the film unravels a story right out of the pages of a 1950’s film criticism class, if that class were taught today. The drama, heavily lifted from Sirk’s film “All That Heaven Allows,” has updated the strife with the still semi-taboo subjects of homosexuality and interracial love and displays them as pretty and ultimately empty set pieces against a back drop of pristine, Connecticut, alleged perfection.
Julianne Moore, who plays Cathy Whitaker- housewife supreme- is a master at portraying finely tuned characters who brew a simmering pot of unfulfilled desire. However, while she is directed deftly enough in the ‘on the surface’ portion of her performance, director Haynes has missed the mark when it comes to having her present even a glimmer of what’s underneath.
For his part, Dennis Haysbert, who brings his usual charm and smooth voiced grace to his role of Raymond, simply walks through the film doing his best ‘magical Negro’ until the denouement, when he actually leaves the white, attractive, but baggage laden Cathy.
It is only Dennis Quaid who delivers on the unsettled, perturbed messiness of a man on the edge who maneuvers his imperfections with a mix of shame and hubris.
Haynes, at a technical peak, employs the same saturated tones and sweeping score (he got the ‘melo’ part right, at least) of Sirk’s masterful Hollywood period, only he forgets to include characters about whom anyone might care one iota, beyond their hair, costumes and lighting. Here, Haynes is a mettuer en scene in the truest sense.
With only an intimation of emotion emanating ever so slightly from every frame of film, the audience is left to wonder whether the characters are even aware of the world they are supposed to inhabit, or if they are simply moving from one deliberately designed set piece to the next. The diegetic detail is convincing enough, however during supposed climactic moments, neither the harm inflicted on a child, nor the discovery of a husband’s betrayal are enough to elicit emotional force more dramatic than head hanging resignation or gritted teeth.
While Haynes gets everything right about the look of the film, he seems to have paid only cursory attention to the text, and with only a hint of tension and character development, we are left filling in the blanks, with regard to the implied subversiveness of his intent. It’s filmmaking as paint-by-numbers. The replication appears accurate enough, but that is the only level the film ever reaches- that of a replica.