Todd Haynes’ ‘Far from Heaven’ comes as close as it can be to channelling the bygone era of Hollywood social melodramas of Douglas Sirk reworked for today’s audience while revising its themes to become more relevant now more than ever. As a matter of fact, it actually improves upon Sirk’s work. It’s the best and boldest 50’s melodrama never made from that decade from its artistry to its intellect that masterfully explores racial issues, classism, gender roles and sexual orientation through the lens of 1950’s America in a single cohesive package.
The film sees the Whitakers in the suburban small town of Hartford, Connecticut. We follow Cathy Whitaker (played by Julianne Moore), a mother and loving wife to Frank (played by Dennis Quaid) in a seemingly perfect all-American family of two. What could go possibly wrong for Cathy? Well everything. On one night she shockingly discovers a secret that’s harbouring inside Frank. He’s attracted to men which could be hugely damaging to the perfect image they’ve set up. In trying to fix her husband’s dilemma through conversion therapy she mingles with Raymond Deagan (played by Dennis Haysbert), the tall, young, poorer and most importantly black son of her late gardener who tries to be friendly to Cathy through all her troubles. As the film progresses, Cathy’s problems with her self-image weigh in and everything falls apart for her.
Haynes manages to faithfully return to the mise-en-scene of Sirk’s films to a T. The film from the very beginning lets you know Haynes is paying his respect to the 50’s melodrama aesthetic by deliberately tracing the opening sequence to Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955). In the film the home of the Whitakers is presented as the pure, all-American utopia as if it leaped straight out of vintage 1950’s magazines with shiny smiles that were meant to set the societal standards for that time. This is highlighted when Cathy is being interviewed and posing for the weekly gazette where we see the interviewer makes a reference to the advertisement that she and Frank did together, making them the ‘it’ couple to be. The period costumes and the colours of them are also meant to signify the societal norms and deviations. The colour on her friends match the autumn setting and all dress alike while Cathy’s divergence from the norm is indicated by the addition of a purple scarf. The performance of the leads are distinctively recreating the acting style of 50’s melodramas from the larger-than-life jolly attitude to the exaggerated freak-out moments which help drive the seriousness of these social issues into modern audience’s minds and hearts.
In the end, the film has successfully set out what it aims to do due to the effective performance of our leads and how it conveys its themes and values of that time which reminds us how far we have come as a society. The film fully commits to the ‘Sirk’ aesthetic while also emphasizing on the characters’ bittersweet melodrama. We as the audience, on our part, are unable to help Cathy, but to be apprehended by the inescapability of her position. She is far from paradise, far from heaven.