Where Julianne Moore lives in Far From Heaven, when it's autumn, all the leaves turn the brightest colors nature has to offer, and some that it doesn't. When it's winter, snow pours from the sky. Geographically, she lives in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut, but chronologically, she resides in the post-WWII boom of economic prosperity and idealized domesticity. Most of all, she lives in the world captured by Douglas Sirk. Born in Germany, Sirk fled the Nazi tide and found a roundabout way to Hollywood. Though he directed other sorts of films, Sirk became famous for a string of melodramas like Written On The Wind and Imitation Of Life that converted the tortured emotional lives of their characters into a locus for contemporary anxiety. Filled with secret desires and broken taboos, reduced to plot descriptions they sound like pure soap opera, and as both a visual stylist and a director of actors, Sirk demanded a kind of heightened drama that a less masterful director would have tilted toward camp. His films need to be seen to be understood, with no description capturing his ability to tear viewers' hearts from their chests. Drawing heavily from Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, with Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes (the writer and director of Safe and Velvet Goldmine) has crafted a feature-length homage to Sirk that succeeds both on its own terms and as the Sirk film that could never have been made in his own lifetime. The wife of successful ad man Dennis Quaid and a fixture in Hartford's society pages, Moore oversees a household that looks like the model of domestic bliss: two children, all the latest furnishings, an immaculate lawn, and a black maid (Viola Davis) who's as much friend as employee. Something isn't right, however. Quaid gets picked up for driving under the influence, and soon he's slipping whiskey into his morning coffee, staying late at work, and drifting to a bar that caters exclusively to men seeking other men. Able to turn to no one else, Moore finds unexpected sympathy from Dennis Haysbert, her handsome, widowed gardener. But even if Hartford could turn a blind eye to a lonely married woman seeking companionship with another man, it won't do it when the two people are of different colors. Haynes is so conversant in the language of Sirk's films that if it succeeded at nothing else, Far From Heaven would work as a fascinating academic exercise. Perfect to the last detail of its production design, stunningly photographed by Edward Lachman, and featuring an Elmer Bernstein score in the classic mold, it also accomplishes what Gus Van Sant failed to do with his Psycho remake, collapsing the new into the old. For all the meticulous re-creation, there's a deep gulf between what Haynes shows and what Sirk could only relegate to subtext. A tremendous accomplishment in itself, even more impressive is the way Haynes makes it possible to forget all the layers at work and simply be swept up in the story's emotions. As in Sirk's films, these characters live and breathe within the film's exaggerated reality, thanks to rich performances by Haysbert, Quaid, and especially Moore (who can count this among her best work, alongside Haynes' Safe). Beneath an immaculate hairdo and well-pressed clothes, she finds the heart of a woman awakening to life's real pleasures, and to the unspoken restrictions of society. Between that joy and disappointment, Far From Heaven reveals a whole world suffering beneath Technicolor skies.
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