‘Far From Heaven’ brings us close to home

Paul Benedict

The dysfunctional family: Filmmakers revisit it again and again, making it arguably one of the more popular themes of conflict in modern cinema. Enter Todd Haynes, whose two previous films offered some of the ’90s more original fare, “Safe” (1995) and “Velvet Goldmine” (1998). Leading lady Julianne Moore appears anxious to jump onboard another Haynes’ project after garnering rave reviews for her performance in “Safe.” Moore is widely renowned for her diverse array of roles and has twice been nominated for an Academy Award. So it comes as little surprise that Haynes’ latest feature, “Far From Heaven,” is an unmistakably fresh take on surfacing problems within a suburban family.

Set in a wealthy, predominantly white suburb of Hartford, Conn. during the ’50s, Haynes presents his film with the same wholesome image of society showcased in the “American Dream” era of ’50s entertainment. Of course there’s the hard-working husband and adoring father, Frank (Dennis Quaid)—constantly putting in late hours as a sales executive for a television production company and gaining respect from the entire community for his “image.”

Then we have the two children, boy and girl, conveniently around the same age. Both behave well and obey their mother while competing to earn the attention of their father. And finally, Haynes gives us the glue that keeps the family together: mother and wife Kathleen, played beautifully by Moore. Boasting a life envied by peers, Kathleen saunters gleefully, chats optimistically and does everything gracefully. With the family she’s dreamed of having and the respect she deserves, Kathleen appears to be living a fantasy life. Of course we wouldn’t have a movie if this picturesque family lived without conflict. Haynes effectively presents the dilemma that will ultimately affect the lives of the characters. By establishing the hearty tone in the first few scenes, he has the audience utterly unprepared for the shock that we witness. Haynes provides somewhat of a “red herring” in terms of the problem the family will eventually face, and this only makes the revealing scene even more surprising.

The remainder of the film generally centers on the tribulations of Kathleen and an aspiring friendship she develops with her African-American gardener named Raymond Deagan. Dennis Haysbert (television’s “24”) is cast perfectly as Raymond, with a friendly face making him instantly likeable the moment he appears on screen. The two have an immediate chemistry that seems entirely appropriate for their needs; Raymond has just moved into town and feels quite lonely, and Kathleen, with no one to actually talk to, feels somewhat alienated. Of course the relationship between the unlikely duo doesn’t go over too well with the town, spawning another crisis for the family.

Haynes captures the mood of the era with elegance and employs it wonderfully throughout. While the film is structured around the melodrama, Haynes utilizes, to his advantage the humor a modern audience will find outdated. Rarely does a scene conclude without a mild smirk, if not laughter. What makes the film so effective is how Haynes exaggerates the perkiness of the time period. Up to the final moments, you might be wondering why exactly he decided to employ such an unusual setting. And then, as the embellished melodrama sets in, you begin to realize that you are actually caught up in it. The innocence, the naivete, the “cheesiness” – it’s all enchanting if you give into it. You just need to loosen your belt a little and realize how pure the world once was … and you’ll begin to appreciate it.