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Far From Heaven

Universal // PG-13 // April 1, 2003
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted April 1, 2003 | E-mail the Author
The Movie

I can struggle with Herculean effort, but there is no way anyone can talk about Far From Heaven without referring to the work of director Douglas Sirk. Indeed, Todd Haynes remarkable film not only wears its influence by Sirk's lush melodramas on its sleeve, Far From Heaven proudly drops trou and fearlessly displays those Resplendent Technicolor Underoos of Homage.

This, as the saying goes, is Not a Bad Thing.

All glibness aside, Far From Heaven is nestled comfortably in the world of Sirk's 1950s melodramas, a spiritual cousin to films like Written on the Wind and All That Heaven Allows. Where Haynes's film deviates is in both its 21st Century approach and its subject matter. The setting in this film is classic fifties Americana: the nuclear family who are a paragon of social aspiration, a successful sales executive for a husband/father, a lovely, genteel home-making wife/mother, two precocious children whose most vile S-word is "shucks", and the requisite two-story New England home. Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, in a bravura performance that radiates the type of controlled equilibrium of vulnerability and fortitude that is required to elevate her role from caricature to a fully realized character. Her seemingly perfect existence is shattered when husband Frank Whitaker (in a strong performance by Dennis Quaid) is revealed to be a homosexual. This revelation, combined with Cathy's growing friendship with Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), their black gardener, formulates a focal point on which Haynes uses both relationships to further explores the social limitations of 1950s America.

It's not too much of a stretch to predict the avenues along which the plot traverses, and indeed there are really few surprises in store here. Far From Heaven has many strengths in its presentation, the best of which include Haynes's smart script and deft direction. As an homage, Far From Heaven is remarkable; both Elmer Bernstein's pervasive, powerful score and Edward Lachman's knockout cinematography create a sensuous world of sound and color, a world that doesn't seem like a rehashed retrospective of something lost decades ago but rather that of a realistic, lovingly-rendered recreation. There performances are powerful across the board, with both Moore and the great Patricia Clarkson standing out (Moore's Academy Award nomination was well-deserved.) Nor is the film a condemnation of the films of the era; Haynes simply isn't pointing the camera and saying, "Look! We can touch subjects you never could back in your helpless, Puritanical era." Haynes is neither patronizingly smirking nor condescendingly deconstructive to either Sirk or the era, but rather using Sirk's style to take the "Technicolor melodrama" films to another level.

The downside to this is the film's latent predictability and, ultimately, its irrelevance to the modern filmgoer. That's not necessarily a slam on this Far From Heaven, but placed within the context of the modern movie-watching audience, the film simply has nothing to teach us, save for that pre-Civil Rights America did not provide any societal tolerance for intermingling of the races or acceptance of alternative lifestyles. (In the field of Animal Husbandry, this is known as the "Tell Us Something We Don't Know" Theory.) While this flaw ultimately hurts the film, it does not diminish its numerous pleasures and strengths. The story, while simple, is beautifully rendered and phenomenally acted, brought to us in a style long forgotten and still potent in its ability to convey beauty, sadness, and truth. If Far From Heaven is ultimately a trifle, it is nonetheless a succulent one. This is a movie for movie-lovers.


In a word, I can sum up the video presentation as gorgeous. The transfer is showcased in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen viewing pleasure. This film relies heavily on its extensive use of color and its stunning photography, and the transfer hardly disappoints. Images are sharp and extremely well defined. Contrasts are well rendered and display excellent range, with rich, deep black levels and excellent shadow detail. The numerous dark-lit living room scenes in this film show remarkable clarity, as do various nighttime and other dimly-lit scenes. And the colors! You haven't seen such lush, vibrant images as these, with fantastic chromatic separation without bleeding or over-saturation. Compression noise and transfer artifacts are nowhere to be seen. In fact, the transfer is only flawed by occasional but stubborn edge-enhancement (check out that creepy haloing off of James Rebhorn bald spot!) and some very seldom but noticeable debris on the print.

The audio is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 (a 2.0 French dub is also included). I did not detect too much difference between the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks, although the DTS registered slightly louder and boasted brighter dialog. Either one works fairly well. You won't find a lot of rear activity, as the film is mostly quiet and dialog-driven – thus, aggressive surrounds and a booming LFE are not selling points on this disc. On the other hand, the Bernstein's orchestral score is presented in rich, well-defined fidelity, and the dialog is clearly and appropriately delivered. For the subject-matter and period this movie is emulating, the soundtrack definitely works as it should.

Director Todd Haynes provides a feature-length Director's Commentary, and it's wonderful. Haynes obviously has a passion for the work of Douglas Sirk and proudly discusses how Sirk's films influenced Far From Heaven, from its bravura cinematography to such small details as what posters should be on the walls. It's a fascinating and entertaining commentary and well worth a listen.

Running for eleven minutes, The Making of Far From Heaven is a rather slight backstage look into the making of the film. The director and stars offer up their feelings about the film and the films of the past that inspired it. It's certainly a decent and welcome if ultimately forgettable addition.

An episode of the Sundance Channel's fabulous Anatomy of a Scene television program is included (and as an aside, if you are not TIVO'ing this program, you should be!) This individual show focused on Far From Heaven (obviously), and spends twenty-seven minutes analyzing the construction and filming of the "party scene." The scene is analyzed from a variety of different approaches, from acting, set construction, lighting, and costuming. This feature is far from a fluffy, superfluous marketing piece, but a solid examination of how this movie was put together. Great stuff, indeed.

Up next is The Filmmaker's Experience: Question & Answer with Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore. While only running a scant five minutes, this short feature showcases director Haynes and the always-luminescent Moore as they interviewed in front of an audience by Back Stage West Editor-in-Chief Rob Kendt. I wish there could have been more here, but what was included was enjoyable.

Rounding out the supplements are the film's Theatrical Trailer, some Production Notes, Cast and Filmmakers biographical information, and some Recommendations for the films 8 Women and Possession.

Final Thoughts:

Far From Heaven is a beautiful looking, expertly crafted and exquisitely acted film, a nostalgic, respectful, and entertaining look to the films of the past while offering a deeper and more complex experience than those films could have ever delivered. Anyone who wasn't a Julianne Moore fan before watching this film (*cough* heathens *cough) will be made a true believer after watching her performance. She absolutely commands the screen, demonstrating both the magic and charisma of a movie star and the depth and potency of a stellar actress. I could watch her reading the phone book and still be captivated, but enhanced by Todd Haynes masterful direction and great script, Elmer Bernstein's score, and Edward Lachman's cinematography, Moore shines even brighter. You simply can't take your eyes off of her.

While Far From Heaven stops short of being a true masterpiece, I can easily recommend the movie as a wonderfully entertaining and touching look into another era of both social norms and poetic filmmaking. The DVD, with its beautiful presentation and informative extras, also comes recommended. If you saw the film in the theaters and enjoyed it, the purchase of this disc should be a no-brainer. If you were impressed by the movie's critical acclaim and Oscar recognition, you owe it to yourself not to miss this wonderfully entertaining movie. Recommended!

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