Saturday, June 7, 2014

Far From Heaven (2002)

Director: Todd Haynes                                   Writer: Todd Haynes
Film Score: Elmer Bernstein                           Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Starring: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Patricia Clarkson and Dennis Haysbert

Writer-director Todd Haynes has an eclectic portfolio of films to his credit, but seems most adept at historical dramas like this one. Thus far his most impressive work has been the 2011 HBO miniseries of James M. Cain’s noirish novel Mildred Pierce starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce. Far From Heaven is set in the 1950s and deals with some unsettling behavior that doesn’t fit the norm in that conformist era. But unlike the HBO series in which he had a tremendous piece of literature to adapt, here Haynes is stuck with his own screenplay and it suffers as a result. Sure, he was attempting to emulate the vacuous nature of the period in the dialogue and the characterizations, but that is making a critical error in the assumption that the audience will see that as a virtue. Many did, of course, and the film was nominated for something like a hundred awards. But it only won thirty. It’s a critical darling that leaves me feeling a bit like the emperor has no clothes, and very much compelled to point it out.

The film is set in the late fifties, with Julianne Moore as the housewife of ad executive Dennis Quaid. Best friend Patricia Clarkson is helping her decorate her house for a party while black maid Viola Davis cooks and cleans. Then one night she gets a call from the police and has to bail Quaid out of jail. He makes it seem like a mistake, but the next evening after working late he goes to a movie theater and then follows some men to a gay bar. When he calls the house the following night to say he’s not coming home again, Moore makes the decision to bring him his dinner and discovers him in the arms of another man. The real unfolding of the plot is what comes after this revelation. Quaid tells Moore that he had a “problem” when he was young but thought it was behind him. The belief, for both of them, is that he is broken and needs the psychiatric help of James Rebhorn in order to become “normal” again. At the same time she befriends the black gardener, Dennis Haysbert, who has taken over the job for his deceased father. The other theme running through the film is the racism of the white Connecticut friends of Moore’s who see her behavior with Haysbert just as outside of conventions as Quaid's.

It’s an interesting film that just feels a little too simplistic to be good cinema. Fifties films like Revolutionary Road or Pleasantville, that come at the era from a unique perspective, are far more successful. This one seems more like a TV movie than a major motion picture and the fault for that can only be attributed to Todd Haynes. And it’s not just his direction. Because he is saddled with his own script he gives the actors too little room to maneuver. Julianne Moore is far too stereotyped to be believed and her character seems more suited to an ignorant Southern white from The Help than a suburban Northerner. Making the entire film from Moore’s perspective is the fatal flaw that ultimately kills the piece and allows little for the audience to engage in. Dennis Quaid is so tightly wound that he comes off as one-dimensional, even when we see him outside of Moore’s viewpoint. What is so frustrating is the untapped potential that can be seen everywhere in opening the film up with multiple viewpoints. The wonderful Viola Davis is wasted as the maid. She should have had a conversation with Haysbert about what he was doing. And while Patricia Clarkson is given a nice twist in the end, there should have been more with her and the other women.

To be fair, some of the claustrophobia in the script is what Haynes was going for. He was creating an homage to fifties films, especially those directed by Douglas Sirk. But even so, a film needs to stand on its own to be successful. And while his use of color and period equipment was an attempt to duplicate the look of those films, he would have been better served manipulating the color digitally which, ironically, would have made it more attuned to the time period for modern audiences. And color is one of the main characters in the film, bright blue at night, green for the social “crimes,” and fall colors for the women. The problem with all of these colors is that while they are an attempt at mimicking the highly artificial Technicolor look of the fifties films, instead it only makes the film look videotaped, removing the warmth of the older film stock and destroying the very effect he wanted to achieve. The film was well received on its release and was nominated for several Academy Awards. Still, Far From Heaven falls far from greatness in my mind primarily because of the potential for success that was completely squandered. A valiant effort, but a near miss for me.

No comments:

Post a Comment