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Director Todd Haynes shows remarkable talent in what might be one of the most interesting and rewarding films of 2002 but won’t necessarily get the mainstream recognition it deserves. The late fifties setting and the melodramatic script may not be the most marketable elements for a Hollywood production, particularly with the emphasis on dumbed-down, paint-by-numbers films and sloppy sequels littering the screens at present. But there’s no denying this is an absolute gem of a film that deserves to find an audience, albeit a relatively small but appreciative one.

Far From Heaven

Movie
Far From Heaven looks at the life of 1950’s housewife, Mrs. Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore). Married to successful businessman Frank (played wonderfully by an underrated Dennis Quaid), Cathy enters the film as delightfully happy as one can be in the 50’s, yet by the end carries enough emotional scarring to last until the next millennium.

Her problems first arise when she stumbles upon Frank and another man having more than just a deep conversation. This uncovers several demons from their relationship which until now had been repressed. Cathy is understandably shocked, while Frank is distraught yet relieved to finally be able to live his alternate life without keeping it from his spouse. Divorce soon follows, and Cathy turns to her negro gardener Raymond (Dennis Haysbert) for moral support. In today’s society there’s nothing wrong with that scenario but in the 1950s the thought of a friendship between a white woman and a black man was enough to get the rumour mill going.

The essence of the film is the combination of a vintage setting (containing some of the most perfect set design and costumes in recent history) and societal issues which would play out very differently in this day and age. Homosexuality and race issues are at the forefront, but Haynes manages to introduce more universal themes in the background to give the story incredible depth whilst still keeping the surface as simple as possible.

Julianne Moore is the heart of this film and is possibly half the reason it succeeds as a story. Her Cathy runs the gamut of emotions but never steers into the stereotypical downtrodden housewife territory, showing a subtle independence with a strong sense of emotion in the process. Dennis Quaid fits the bill perfectly as Frank, with his later scenes both gut-wrenching and enthralling at the same time. Dennis Haysbert has come a long way since ol’ Pedro from Major League and adds another string to his bow with this one.

Far From Heaven

But the most credit must go to director Todd Haynes (with experienced pair Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney serving as executive producers) for his meticulous approach to the story and visuals. He combines the soft touch reminiscent of the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s with a modern element which perfectly contrasts the issues confronted in the film. This contemporary look at those kinds of films is perfectly balanced between melodrama and character study. The production design is top notch, on a limited budget by today’s standards, and the colour palette is used very effectively to highlight the fact this is more than just a character study.

Far From Heaven is definitely a film that some will overlook, content to munch their popcorn with more mindless and striking fare. But this story is definitely one out of the box, meandering throughout yet still proving enthralling viewing for the duration. Many will pass this one by, missing out on one of 2002’s finest. Don’t let yourself suffer the same fate.

Video
The cinematography and production design is done justice by the 1.85:1, 16:9 enhanced transfer which serves to accentuate the vivid colour palette and maintain a remarkable sharpness throughout. Todd Haynes has surrounded his characters in some vibrant red and blues against the more traditional surroundings of the home interiors. There are some tricky scenes involving a hell of a lot of detail but the transfer steps up to cover all but the most minute elements of detail, which is why it doesn’t quite move into reference quality territory.

You know that if the disturbingly placed layer change is your biggest gripe with the visuals then it’s a pretty good transfer, so you can rest assured this disc will look great with whatever equipment you possess, and any slight grain or aliasing will pass by largely unnoticed.

Far From Heaven

Audio
The score, helmed by film veteran Elmer Bernstein, is possible the most notable aspect of the audio mix, considering the very dialogue-heavy nature of the film and the lack of any real moments to ramp up the surround effects.

The music in the film fits perfectly into the subtle, moving mould of the film itself, never getting in the way of the dialogue or dominating the visuals at all. The sounds are pumped out of the front stage throughout but do tend to sit back into the rears on occasion which really does add to the effect.

Aside from the musical side of things the rears are used predominantly for ambient sounds and random effects throughout, with the dialogue placed firmly in the front speakers. Considering the subject matter this is quite a good mix overall.

Extras
A neat little extras package has been assembled here, giving fans of the film a good insight into the making of the production.

First up is an audio commentary with Todd Haynes, who discusses a whole range of things to do with the film, from his motivations behind the use of colour, his thoughts on the casting and actors and the variety of locations used throughout. Haynes is a polished speaker and comes across as a very intelligent man, making this track well worth a listen.

The first of three featurettes is the Anatomy Of A Scene piece, which looks at Todd Haynes’ contemporary take on the Douglas Sirk films and how he has taken that idea and given it a unique look. Interviews with all the key players reveal how they view the film as a whole and the modernisation of the 1950s genre flick.

The Making Of Far From Heaven includes a look behind the scenes of the production, even if there is some crossover with the previous featurette when talking about the influential elements from the past. Through more interviews we delve even further into Douglas Sirk’s films and tie them back into the production.

The last featurette is called The Filmmaker’s Experience, which is a question and answer session with Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore. This is an interesting piece set in a theatre as the pair field questions from the audience about the production. While we don’t see many of the questions being asked, merely the answers being given with clips from the film playing over the top, this cut-down version of the session is probably the best of what footage was available.

Rounding out the collection of extras is the theatrical trailer, which is one of the best I have seen for some time, along with the well set out production notes and production notes for the four main cast members and Haynes himself. This is quite a good package overall, with quality definitely winning out over quantity.

Far From Heaven

Overall
What a gem. I must admit that I’m much more of an action, spy, thriller kind of person but this film has made me realise there are some brilliant dramatic stories to be told, and thankfully this one has been done very well. Moore and Quaid are brilliant and the direction of Todd Haynes top notch. I look forward to his work in the future, especially if it comes even close to the heights of this one.

The disc itself is a polished little package, with a brilliant video transfer and audio mix that sounds great thanks to a moving score and an extras package with some interesting insights into the production. Be sure not to pass this one by like the masses.


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