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“Far From Heaven”

For those who do not want to return to the prejudice and false piety of a half century ago, the closing shot of “Far From Heaven” offers a glimpse that something better, namely the future for the film’s characters, indeed is coming.

None of this compares, however, to the absolutely inspired idea of director Todd Haynes to make this film exactly like a film from the 1950s—only with a twist. The 1950s gave us what many consider the two weakest and most inane Best Picture Oscar winners ever recognized: “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952) and “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956).   

Even great classic films from that era, like “On the Waterfront,” were ultimately watered down from their original vision; originally Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy was supposed to die, but the decision was made that audiences did not like film heroes dying at the end.  

Haynes has made a film that looks exactly like many of the sanitized films of that era. Everything from the musical score to credits (opening and closing) looks and feels right. The viewer has gone back in time to an age when children were reprimanded for saying “Aw, shucks.” Mothers were always dressed perfectly, every hair in place, when their husbands arrived home from work. This is the world of “Father Knows Best” and the Beav.   

But only in appearance. This dad is not Ward Cleaver. This mom is far too smart, strong, yet wounded to ever be June Cleaver. And their problems have very little to do with what mischief their children might get into next. 

There are many lessons in “Far From Heaven.” The damaging power of gossip is explored, as is racism. A scene where a pool for whites clears out immediately because a black 5-year-old boy has stuck his toe in the water no longer shocks us. Certainly the film wants to remind us how horrible prejudice is, and nowhere is it more effective in this than the final conversation between Cathy and Eleanor. Ultimately, however, race issues in this film are a subplot to a greater message. 

Like the great film” Pleasantville,” “Far From Heaven” dares to ask the question, “Were the ’50s really such a perfect time, or is that just the product of a sanitized imagination?”  “Pleasantville” did it with a fantasy, where two teenagers are swept into a black-and-white sitcom of the era. There is no fantasy with “Far From Heaven,” though. Haynes plays it straight. This film looks and feels like films of the ’50s, but the accuracies do not end with the look of the film. This is an exposé of the “age of innocence.” 

The best way to sum up the most powerful message of “Far From Heaven” is to offer an explanation of the title. The world of 1950s America may be an icon of everything that is good for some people. Some religious and political leaders hold it up as the time of traditional family values to which America should return. Those people live with a fantasy of the past that existed only in films and sitcoms.   

The truth is that it was much more than a time of well-behaved children, manicured yards and polite conversations, for a great many people lived lives filled with injustices. Some may romanticize that time as “paradise,” but reality knows it was “Far From Heaven.” 

For those who do not want to return to the prejudice and false piety of a half century ago, the closing shot of “Far From Heaven” offers a glimpse that something better, namely the future for the film’s characters, indeed is coming. 

Roger Thomas is pastor of NortheastBaptistChurch in Atlanta. 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content, brief violence and language

Director: Todd Haynes

Writer: Todd Haynes

Cast: Cathy Whitaker: Julianne Moore; Frank Whitaker: Dennis Quaid; Raymond Deagan: Dennis Haysbert; Eleanor Fine: Patricia Clarkson; Sybil: Viola Davis.