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FAR FROM HEAVEN (article first published : 2003-05-19)

This Oscar-nominated and widely acclaimed film by one of the most hip of directors, 41-year-old Todd Haynes, is sumptuous in look - a glowing valentine to the conservative, heightened-reality, Technicolor-drenched tear-jerkers of the 1950s.

And it's particularly inspired by the work of director Douglas Sirk whose formal visual style and gift for spinning maudlin tales into golden melodrama has him noted as the master of the lush screen weepie. But Haynes, whose work includes Safe starring Julianne Moore and the less effective glam-rock pastiche Velvet Goldmine, scatters a lot more glitter on Far From Heaven than just surface lacquer. And he dives far, far deeper into his soapie subject matter than any plush 50s weepie ever dared.

Beautifully acted, exquisitely costumed and designed, and further embellished with a superbly over-the-top and emotive score by Elmer Bernstein, this is a compelling and moving drama. One which, while strictly loyal to the vernacular and vision of a past celluloid era, winks only affectionately and never turns camp as it offers a searing look at human nature.

In so doing it also provides powerful, understated, commentary on issues labelled taboo in 50s cinema and which are still not fully resolved today.

The story is inspired mostly by Sirk's All That Heaven Wants which starred Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson but it goes far further in holding a microscope to themes of racism, prejudice, sexuality and inner turmoil.

The Academy Award-nominated Julianne Moore, pregnant at the time and consequently more full-figured and rounder faced, is superb. Her every mannerism speaking volumes, she is Cathy, the over-dressed and overly made-up stereotype of 50s, chocolate-box chic.

A mother of two in a picket-fence-perfect home in Connecticut in 1958, she is the perfect hostesss, the perfect friend and neighbour, the perfect mum and wife. But her neat, ordered, stylised world starts to crack around her when she catches her clean-cut, respected executive husband (an effectively edgy Dennis Quaid) fooling around. And with another man.

Cathy, however, true to celluloid conventions of the time, handles things with a quiet control, a polite forgiveness, all the while dying inside. She supports her husband's move to try to acquire normality through consultations with his doctor, but the rift between them grows ever wider.

This is not the only fly in the ointment. An even bigger concern for Cathy and particularly her bigoted gossiping community, is her growing friendship with her friendly, intelligent black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).

Haynes's film is a constant joy and his clever, careful use of colour is remarkable. The changing hues reflect the changing mood of the story as it skips through golden autumns, trudges through cold, grey winters and dissolves in a final, brief glimpse of a budding spring, bringing with it the promise of better days.

As one British reviewer put it, Far From Heaven would have been the best "women's picture" ever made in the 50s, if anyone had been courageous enough to make it.

No discerning film fan should miss it. The running time is 107 minutes. 9/10 - Billy Suter




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