[Screen It]

(2002) (Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid) (PG-13)

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Drama: A 1950s era housewife must not only contend with her husband being gay, but also with the repercussions of her friendship with a black man.
Cathy (JULIANNE MOORE) and Frank Whitaker (DENNIS QUAID) seem to have the idyllic life. With two well-behaved kids, Janice (LINDSAY ANDRETTA) and David (RYAN WARD), a big house in Hartford, Connecticut, and Frank having a good job with electronics manufacturer Magnatech, things couldn't seem to be any better. They've even been named Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech and are the envy of their friends, including Eleanor Fine (PATRICIA CLARKSON).

Yet, when Cathy discovers Frank in the arms of another man late at night at work, her world is shattered. Although they go to see Dr. Bowman (JAMES REBHORN) who claims he can return Frank to heterosexuality, Cathy is too ashamed to tell anyone. She does, however, find a friend in Raymond Deagan (DENNIS HAYSBERT), their black gardener. He's a well-educated man who also has his own shop and is raising his young daughter, Sarah (JORDAN PURYEAR), by himself.

As the Whitaker's black housekeeper, Sybil (VIOLA DAVIS), suspiciously eyes them, Cathy and Raymond become good friends. Yet, their being together soon raises eyebrows among the predominantly white community and gossip quickly begins to spread about them.

From that point on and as her marriage with Frank continues to worsen, Cathy must decide what to do with her life and whether her friendship with Raymond is worth the gossip, stares and even violence that ensues.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
For those not old enough to have lived through a certain era, their view of it usually comes partially from history books and even more from movies and TV shows made in or about that particular time. Being that TV first made a splash in the 1950s, many people's view of the middle of the Baby Boom is that of the likes of "Leave It To Beaver," "Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best."

That is, happy, successful and complete family units living in the peaceful suburbs where nary a major problem or non-Caucasian existed. While the latter was true in certain areas, the era wasn't all apple pie and happy endings (although it was far more sedate and peaceful than the turbulent decade to follow).

Writer/director Todd Haynes ("Velvet Goldmine," "Safe") uses that TV sitcom superficiality as a jumping off and symbolic point in his latest film, "Far From Heaven." Not exactly a spoof of such artificial slice of life representation, Haynes mixes the "Beaver" elements with the cinematic melodramas of that era to create an interesting backdrop for what's essentially a glorified soap opera. That's not intended as a critical slap in the face, however, as Haynes and his cast and crew have delivered a unique, compelling and engaging picture about past and present artifice and intolerance.

Of the many topics you'd never have seen in 1950s era entertainment, racism and homosexuality are two of the more taboo ones, despite both obviously existing at the time. Haynes trots out both in this film and shows how they overturn the major characters' seemingly perfect family life and world.

In it, perky and perfect housewife Cathy Whitaker - terrifically played by the radiant and ultra-talented Julianne Moore ("The Shipping News," "Hannibal") - has her worse fears confirmed when she discovers her husband in another man's arms. Things then get worse when she - gasp - begins hanging out with a black male acquaintance. Gossip starts flying and soon she's the pariah of her upper-middle class white community.

While all of that could have been as maudlin and melodramatic as the aura in which Haynes envelopes the proceedings - particularly with the purposefully old-fashioned and over the top score by composer Elmer Bernstein ("Bringing Out the Dead," "The Age of Innocence") - the filmmaker keeps the gist of the production real.

We feel for the characters and understand their pain and desires. More importantly, that occurs naturally rather than in a forced or contrived fashion. Much of that has to do with Haynes' terrific direction and strong script, but also because of his cast and their standout performances.

As previously stated, Moore is simply brilliant in her role of portraying a woman who masks her inner angst with a happy and perky front that eventually begins to crack under the pressure and strain. Dennis Quaid ("The Rookie," "Frequency") and Dennis Haysbert ("Love & Basketball," TV's "24") are both strong in their respective roles where they are burdened or troubled by the individual aspects of their lives (homosexuality and being black in a white community respectively).

Patricia Clarkson ("Welcome to Collinwood," "The Pledge") is also good as the protagonist's best friend whose support begins to wane as the "Beaver" fašade becomes tarnished. Supporting performances from those playing minor characters - including Viola Davis ("Antwone Fisher," "Out of Sight"), James Rebhorn ("Meet the Parents," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") and Jordan Puryear (making her debut) - are solid across the board.

The same can be said about the film's production values. Production designer Mark Friedberg ("Kate & Leopold," "Pollock"), costume designer Sandy Powell ("Gangs of New York," "The End of the Affair") and cinematographer Edward Lachman ("Sweet November," "Erin Brockovich") not only get the look of the period right, but they also deliver a glorious looking production that's nothing short of mesmerizing to watch.

While initially somewhat humorous from a near spoof-like standpoint, their and Haynes' combined effort of recreating the artifice of 1950s storytelling becomes something of occasional comic relief for the heady drama that ensues.

Compelling and engaging without coming off as preachy or melodramatic, the film is solidly told from start to finish. While it might not have the happiest of endings and some viewers might not get the intended contrast between the real drama and the purposefully over the top melodramatic elements, this is one of the better films of the year. "Far From Heaven" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 4, 2002 / Posted November 15, 2002

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