- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

"Far From Heaven" is 47 years removed from its cinematic inspiration, the 1955 Universal tear-jerker "All That Heaven Allows." The original movie allowed widow Jane Wyman a second chance at happiness by having her fall in love with her handsome young gardener, Rock Hudson, even though the alliance alienated her family and friends.

"Allows" was a prompt follow-up to a much bigger success, Douglas Sirk's remake of a hit directed at Universal 20 years earlier by John Stahl, "Magnificent Obsession." Miss Wyman and Mr. Hudson inherited roles originated by Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor. In each case, the leading ladies were established draws and the leading men emerged as stellar prospects.

Enamored of Mr. Sirk's approach to romantic melodramas during his tenure at Universal, which concluded in 1959 with yet another popular remake, "Imitation of Life," writer-director Todd Haynes has crafted an affectionate homage to the genre but one that is thematically disruptive.

Mr. Haynes remains remarkably faithful to the 1955 prototype but trifles with its plot in topically knowing and provocative ways. Reuniting with Julianne Moore, who provided him with a haunting emotional instrument seven years ago in "Safe," Mr. Haynes transforms the lovelorn Wyman heroine into a yearning housewife named Cathy Whitaker, located in a deceptively placid suburb of Hartford, Conn., circa 1957.

Cathy is married to a sales executive, Frank, played by Dennis Quaid. They have two children who seem dispensable to the lives of the parents, destined to be wrapped up in tangled love lives. The impression of domestic contentment that surrounds Cathy is shaken initially when she must extract Frank from police custody. He seems to have been drinking and then driving erratically.

In retrospect, you realize that Mr. Haynes might have invented more disgraceful raps, because Cathy discovers that Frank has been concealing homosexual tendencies. They stare her in the face when she barges into his office with an after-hours meal and discovers him in a torrid embrace with another man. In an inspired touch of period poignancy, she drops her Tupperware container on the floor and beats a hasty retreat.

Frank proves to be a compulsive cruiser and adulterer. Cathy does not have a handsome young gardener to whom she can turn, but she does have a mature and kind black gardener, Raymond Deagan, portrayed with easygoing authority by Dennis Haysbert, looking far more plausible as a romantic tower of strength than Rock Hudson.

Far from being a day laborer, Raymond owns his own gardening shop. He is also a widower with a daughter about the same age as the Whitaker children. Cathy discovers that he appreciates art, especially Miro, when father and daughter attend a gallery opening that her group of society friends is sponsoring.

Indeed, their rapport at this event triggers bigoted and jealous speculation among Cathy's set. The most satisfying single sequence in a romantic vein finds Raymond escorting Cathy to a favorite restaurant on the black side of town, in part to get a taste of what it feels like to be the odd person out in a segregated setting. Mr. Haynes is content to let the interlude play out with a becoming awkwardness and warmth. The atmosphere rivals "Devil in a Blue Dress" for sheer period allure.

While Frank continues to pursue other guys on the sly and disgrace himself around the house as an obnoxious drunk, Cathy and Raymond nurture an infatuation that is subject to racial disapproval on both sides of the color line. Mr. Haynes isn't too slick about documenting the malice, especially when he stoops to salting the streets of Hartford with belligerent extras who glare at the blameless couple and even shout dire warnings at Raymond.

Mr. Haysbert is joined as an exemplary cast member by Patricia Clarkson as Cathy's best friend and Viola Davis as her maid. If there's a false note in any of these performers, I couldn't detect it. Julianne Moore's portrait of an awakened sleeping beauty is a shakier proposition, in part because it's easier to be distracted by the cosmetic aspects, notably her costuming.

Partly as a favor to Miss Moore, who was pregnant during the production, Cathy is fitted out with a stupefying array of bell-shaped and capacious skirts. I'm not sure anyone has looked quite as hippy since Judy Holliday in "Bells Are Ringing."

Mr. Haynes seems leery of the idealized domesticity that he sets about to sabotage but completely devoted to the stylistic traditions of the Hollywood studio system of two generations ago. In his devotion, he recalls certain strengths of that system not only the design elements, but also the virtues of square but methodical storytelling. Even when the episodes fall into place rather heavily, they do fall into place. They help create a foundation for ensuing episodes. "Far From Heaven" dotes somewhat absurdly on its lovelorn genre, but it is built to support the weight of the characters' longings and regrets.


TITLE: "Far From Heaven"

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity and graphic violence; occasional sexual candor, including a subplot about furtive homosexual behavior)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Todd Haynes, based on the 1955 film "All That Heaven Allows."

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes


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