Connecticut, 1957, and Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) has the perfect, suburban life, with a happy marriage to business executive Frank (Dennis Quaid) and two loving children. Then one night, the strands of her happiness begin to unravel when she receives a telephone call from the police; she thought her husband was working late, but he has just been arrested for loitering. When Cathy drives him home, he claims it was all a mistake, but it wasn't: Frank is a closet homosexual, and in trying to cope with his guilt, he sparks disaster for his wife's future.
Written by the director Todd Haynes, Far From Heaven was an exquisite recreation of melodrama popular in the 1950s, specifically the films of Douglas Sirk. With Elmer Bernstein's lush, melancholy score and Edward Lachman's richly coloured photgraphy making the most of the deep blues and autumnal hues, the film assuredly looks and sounds authentic, but the story doesn't rely on pastiche, and becomes a sorrowful indictment of intolerance and the effects of living outside the box society has placed you in, whether it be wife, husband, or part of the bigger picture.
As her marriage falls apart, Cathy discovers a deepening relationship with her gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), the son of her last gardener. It's not just the spirit of Douglas Sirk who stirs echoes in the story, but the ghost of Sirk's frequent leading man Rock Hudson, as well. If Raymond is reminscent of the wordly-wise, manly, steadfast, in touch with nature figure of All That Heaven Allows, then Frank is the outwardly heterosexual, secretly gay Hudson of real life, ravaged with inner turmoil.
However, you don't get the impression that Frank, while sympathetic, really loves Cathy, he's too wrapped up in his own problems. Raymond, on the other hand, is perfect for her, an ideal man, or he would be if society didn't decree otherwise. Being black, it is not acceptable for him to be friends with a white woman in the 1950s climate, never mind fall in love with her, and gossip about the couple adds needless pressure to both their lives, with Cathy's friends turning against her, and the widowed Raymond's young daughter being victimised.
What has been a quaint world of outdated attitudes in the first half grows more oppressive in the second. Society has prompted the three main characters to be ashamed of their feelings, and Haynes doesn't shy away from the injustice of their predicaments. Yet the slavish attention to cinematic detail for the fifties mood and appearance makes for an artificial experience, not patronising exactly, but with a measure of ironic distance that develops into a claustrophobic atmosphere. The actors have no trouble finding the emotional heart of their roles, Moore's gently idealistic Cathy especially, but the final effect is more troubling than moving.
Intriguing American arthouse writer-director whose student film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story created a big fuss, and is still banned to this day. The episodic Poison was a disappointing follow up, but Safe was heralded as a triumph. His document of glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, wasn't as well received, however Far From Heaven, a 1950's-set melodrama, was Oscar-nominated, as was the similarly-set romance Carol. In between those were an offbeat take on Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, and a miniseries of Mildred Pierce.