The film is set in an upper-middle-class suburb of Hartford, Connecticut, where manicured lawns, neatly accessorized houses and fashionably attired homemakers bespeak privilege, contentment and conformity. Cathy Whitaker (an impeccable Julianne Moore) is the exemplary '50s housewife and mother: beautiful, modestly stylish, happily married to a successful sales executive, active in civic organizations and a wonderful party hostess. But Cathy's well-ordered life is thrown into turmoil when she discovers her husband, Frank (Dennis Quaid), in the arms of ... a man.
Unable to confide even in her best friend, Eleanor (Patricia Clarkson), Cathy gallantly maintains the pretense of a perfect life. Adding to her woes, she finds that her budding friendship with her black gardener, Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), has roused the disapproval of her smug, white social circle. Good heavens; what would Jane Wyman do?
Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Safe) openly acknowledges that his latest feature is not a throwback to the glossy Hollywood melodramas of yesteryear but an actual homage. In terms of framing, composition, color, camera movement, musical score and costuming, the director and his talented production team -- cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell and composer Elmer Bernstein -- have crafted an unparalleled doppelgänger. We see Moore, sitting at the wheel of her car against a blue-screened backdrop of passing roadside scenery; we hear the studied pauses and cadenced speech patterns that reveal inner turmoil and repressed emotions; we witness the almost campy expressions of shock and disapproval that greet Cathy after she befriends Raymond. Some people may be tempted to titter at these excesses, but Haynes is playing it absolutely straight.
The cast probably had a blast studying their '50s counterparts, but most of the performances range merely from serviceable to good; only Julianne Moore and Viola Davis, in the small role of the Whitakers' black maid, excel. Moore doesn't make one false move as Cathy. Smiling through her tears, she really is the embodiment of a certain kind of '50s womanhood.
But why did Haynes make this picture? Is it intended strictly as a tribute to Sirkian melodrama, or is he trying to draw a parallel between society as it was and society as it is? Bigotry, hypocrisy and complacency remain as American as apple pie, but if Haynes intended the film as social commentary, why not set the story in contemporary times? It certainly would have had more impact.
If the point was to update the genre -- race and class were permissible issues for screen consideration back then, but homosexuality was not -- then why not beef up what essentially fritters away to little more than a plot device? Cathy is rejected by her social circle because of her relationship with her gardener rather than because of Frank's secret or the resulting divorce.
In the end, Far From Heaven feels more like an exercise. In many ways, Haynes succeeds in this endeavor. If you entered the theater not knowing what you were about to see, you'd swear you were watching a film actually made in the '50s. The visual presentation is that convincing. Dramatically, however, the film falls short, making Far From Heaven an easier film to appreciate than to emotionally embrace.