Filmgoers of a certain age may spend the first moments of “Far from Heaven” feeling as if they’ve stepped out of a time machine and into the past. Not the real past, but the gloriously fake one perpetuated in the romantic dramas of the ’50s, and specifically the ’50s of Douglas Sirk, master of the movie melodrama.
In a series of films that saw women coming to terms with the smothering artificiality of seemingly perfect lives, Sirk elicited career-best performances from actresses like Jane Wyman, Dorothy Malone and Lana Turner. He also elicited millions of tears from women who could identify with their characters — while still envying them their beautifully appointed homes, wardrobes and flower-arranging skills.
Todd Haynes, perhaps the best unsung director in the United States, has done an absolutely astonishing job of re-creating the hyper-real style of Sirk. “Far from Heaven” — which takes its title and some of its plot from Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” — opens in a New England autumn ablaze with color, on a Hartford, Conn., street where gleaming two-tone station wagons and bicycles are parked in every driveway, and where the woman of the house wears a silk scarf to protect her beauty-shop bouffant.
The woman of this particular house is Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore), and her life seems almost as beautiful as she is. She has two wonderfully mannered children; a caring maid, Sybil (Viola Davis), to help her manage her household and her busy schedule, and a successful, square-jawed husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid). Together, they look as if they’ve walked out a magazine ad, which they have: Framed on the wall is a photo of them admiring a new TV set used in a campaign designed by Frank’s advertising firm.
Frank is so important there that he works almost all the time. When he is home, he’s often too tired to play with the kids, who are starved for his affection, or even to attend to his “husbandly duties.” A chat with the girls leaves Cathy concerned that Frank may be having an affair, and when she pays a surprise visit to his office, her suspicions are confirmed. She finds Frank in the arms of . . . another man.
Sirk’s films flirted — daringly, for their day — with social and sexual issues. They addressed repression and social taboos — his remake of “Imitation of Life” was about race relations — but they remained a product of their own repressed age. In “Far from Heaven,” Haynes liberates the past by saying aloud what went unspoken.
In “All That Heaven Allows,” a widowed Wyman scandalizes her neighbors by cozying up with her gardener, who is both younger and beneath her; here, Moore’s Cathy finds the empathy and compassion absent in her marriage in an educated widower. Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) appreciates modern art and owns his own business — a gardening business. Raymond happens to be black, which is too much even for Cathy’s alleged best friend Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), who can abide Miro but not Martin Luther King.
Even those who have never seen a Sirk film will find themselves giggling at the crinolined, coiffured exaggerations of “Far from Heaven.” We are, after all, three generations removed from the idealized suburban lives depicted thoughtlessly in “Father Knows Best” and “The Donna Reed Show” and rendered ridiculous long before “The Osbournes.”
But Haynes’ greatest accomplishment, beyond his impeccable craftsmanship and his connection with his actors, is in the way he respects the facade while tearing it away. Even Frank is treated with understanding, and his visit to a psychiatrist who says he can be cured is made more wrenchingly painful by the knowledge we possess: “I know it’s a sickness,” Frank says, “because it makes me feel despicable.”
Long before “Far from Heaven” concludes, you’ll have stopped giggling at the artifice and become swept up in the story, not unlike the way you do when you happen across “Magnificent Obsession” while channel-surfing, only to settle in for a good cry.
Haynes owes no small part of the film’s success to his cast, which is impeccable. Moore is simply magnificent, and her evolution from someone who doesn’t want to know to someone who will settle for nothing less than truth is as inspirational as it eye-opening and heartbreaking.
Quaid reminds us again of the depth of a talent often taken for granted, while Haysbert pays tribute to Sidney Poitier while acknowledging that the victories of the characters Poitier played were balanced by what happened when the camera stopped rolling.
All of them, along with Haynes, seem certain to be remembered when Oscar nominations are announced, while cinematographer Edward Lachman and composer Elmer Bernstein, whose score could turn on a city’s waterworks, should reserve their tuxedos now. For film lovers who understand that the truth is often a gift to be unwrapped slowly, this is as close to heaven as it gets.
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