"Far From Heaven" is one of the rare movies from the past few years that I think will be among those remembered. I'd be surprised if film classes don't study it, I'd be surprised if people who've seen it forget aspects of it and I'm still surprised that the film didn't receive more awards notice this year. I don't think it's entirely a film without concerns, either, but what it does right, it does with impressive ambition and, more often than not, a great deal of success.
Produced by director Steven Soderberg and George Clooney (thankfully; I'm not sure the money would be there for something like this otherwise), director Todd Haynes's "Heaven" is a "recreation" of a Douglas Sirk 50's technicolor melodrama. It is not a mere attempt, but a wholly fascinating success - the look and tone of the picture is remarkably accurate, with Ed Lachman's stunning cinematography making for one of the most visually beautiful films in ages.
The film stars Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as Frank and Cathy, a suburban couple who seem to have just about everything - money, a strong relationship, kids and a beautiful home. However, when Cathy delivers him dinner at work one late night, she finds him with another man. While Cathy and Frank struggle with their relationship, she finds friendship with the African-american gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a kind man who is taking care of his daughter. The two share a bond, and offer each other a place to turn to discuss their troubles and feelings. Unfortunately, once their friendship is revealed to the neighborhood, mean-spirited rumors from the local townsfolk threaten to break them apart. The scenes between Haysbert and Moore (few actresses break into tears more convincingly than Moore) are some of the film's very best, with several moments between the two that are powerful and unforgettable. These scenes and many others are assisted by Elmer Bernstein's marvelous score, which is emotional and sweeping without being manipulative.
All of the film's performances are excellent. Moore, providing herself in the past few years to be an enormous talent, offers a performance that's as effective and enjoyable as her amazing one in Stephen Daldry's "The Hours". Haysbert, so solid in TV's "24", manages to offer a performance that's both quiet and remarkably emotional at once. Quaid, on a roll after "The Rookie", is excellent here, as well. Patricia Clarkson and others offer strong supporting efforts.
Special mention also must be made in regards to Edward Lachman's Oscar-nominated cinematography. Lachman, who has worked on Steven Soderberg's films ("Erin Brockovich"), creates a technicolor appearance that's nothing short of stunning. The film's postcard-perfect images are really a joy to watch, and I also enjoyed the way that the color slowly, carefully drains out of the images as Cathy's perfect world collapses around her.
My only complaint with the film is a stretch in the middle where the film began to drag. It certainly has a fascinating opening and regains its pacing and strength in the last act, but even upon a second viewing, the middle just has a few scattered moments that aren't as involving as the rest. The film certainly has a lot of issues that it presents to the audience, but it presents each and every one of them in a way that is - like the performances - subtle, yet powerful. The film is compelling in the way that it breaks down the myth of perfect, 50's suburbia and the problems beneath that highly polished surface.
VIDEO: "Far From Heaven" is presented by Universal in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture quality is generally very excellent, as the transfer offers an excellent reproduction of the visuals that I saw when I viewed the film theatrically last Fall. The film's color palette, at least for a great deal of the film, is very warm and very well-saturated. There were moments when I felt as if the colors were very slightly warmer than I remember them being, but in general, they look accurate and pleasing, with no smearing or other faults.
The picture offered fine clarity and detail, although a very slightly soft appearance to the image is accurate to the intent. As for faults, the presentation remained free of edge enhancement, but a speck or two was noticed on the print used, and a couple of minor compression artifacts were spotted. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones looked accurate. A very nice effort.
SOUND: "Far From Heaven" is presented by Universal in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. Given the style and tone of the film, it's perfectly understandable that the film's soundtrack really does not offer much in the way of surround use at all. The rear speakers do kick in with some minor reinforcement of the score, but they're otherwise silent. Bernstein's score sounded crisp and clear throughout, as did dialogue. A fine soundtrack, appropriate for the material.
EXTRAS: Director Todd Haynes offers an excellent, full-length audio commentary for the feature. Haynes goes into great depth on accurately creating the look and feel of Sirk's melodramas, discussing not only the cinematography, but the style of writing and performances. The commentary does have a few slow or praise-heavy moments, but overall, it's a very interesting track. Those interested in another collaboration between Haynes and Julianne Moore should see "Safe", which is also an excellent film.
A "Q & A" session with Haynes and Moore is interesting, especially as Haynes describes how studios understood the film, when I'd think - given what is mostly in theaters these days - that they wouldn't be interested at all. Both director and actress offer involving viewpoints on their experiences with the production, and humor, too (for such a serious actress, Moore occasionally seems funny and giggly in interviews).
Two additional pieces are also offered - a Sundance Channel "Anatomy of a Scene" documentary and a brief "Making Of" featurette. The Sundance Channel piece is certainly the superior effort, running 27 minutes and offering much more insight into the production. Interviews with the cinematographer, production designer, actors and others during the Sundance piece really get to the heart of the matter and provide good insight. The "making of" is only 11 minutes.
Also included are production notes, bios, the film's trailer and recommendations.
Final Thoughts: A beautiful film that successfully recreates the look of Sirk's melodramas, "Far From Heaven" is a film that is restrained, and yet remarkably touching and powerful. Moore's performance is brilliant, and the film's direction, writing, cinematography and set design are also worthy of praise. Universal's DVD edition offers very good audio/video quality, along with solid supplements. Recommended.