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FAR FROM HEAVEN ****

By GUY FLATLEY

CAST: Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Dennis Haysbert, Patricia Clarkson, Viola Davis, James Rebhorn, Celia Weston

WRITER/DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes


Douglas Sirk, a director who fled Nazi Germany, turned out a number of stylish low-budget Hollywood movies in the forties and early fifties, among them "Summer Storm," "A Scandal in Paris," "Lured," "Sleep My Love" and "The First Legion." Although mainstream critics rarely made a fuss over his films, audiences found them sufficiently entertaining to keep Sirk busy, usually at Universal, where he imposed his fluid visual style and narrative skill on such Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler trifles as "No Room for the Groom," "Taza, Son of Cochise" and "Sign of the Pagan"--movies that were about as far from soap opera as you can get.

It was not until 1953, in "All I Desire," a tearjerker starring Barbara Stanwyck as a wife who regrets ditching her husband and children, that Sirk revealed a talent for breathing fresh life into the stale conventions of the so-called woman's picture. Pleasing the public, if not the shortsighted critics of the day, he continued to mine this genre in movies ranging from "Magnificent Obsession" to "There's Always Tomorrow," "All That Heaven Allows," "Interlude" and "Imitation of Life." The stories generally centered on strong, self-sacrificing women and bland, sometimes boorish men. Even when such ugliness as racial discrimination or marital infidelity cropped up, virtue triumphed in the end. Sweetness and light--at least on the surface. But more often than not, the subtext was sour, dark and disdainful of what Sirk viewed as the puritanical, obsessively materialistic American psyche.

That was Sirk, and they don't make his kind of movies anymore. Not, that is to say, until "Far From Heaven," Todd Haynes' witty, moving, brilliantly sustained re-creation of a Sirkian soap. Working from his own screenplay, Haynes ("Poison," "Safe," "Velvet Goldmine") sets the story in the 50's, reshaping and updating various elements of "All That Heaven Allows," the popular 1956 drama starring Jane Wyman as a widow who horrifies the population of an idyllic but uptight suburb by falling in love with her handsome, much younger gardener.

Just imagine what those snobs would have thought if that manly gardener--played by the closeted Rock Hudson, who appeared in eight of Sirk's films--had been gay. Or black. In Haynes' version, he's straight, but he's definitely black and he's beautifully portrayed by Dennis Haysbert. This time, though, the lady of the house and garden (the astonishing Julianne Moore) is not a widow. She's a model wife and mother of two clean-scrubbed children, and her husband (Dennis Quaid in a bold, unsentimental performance) is a furtively gay business executive.

Haynes' rendering of the fifties look and feel may be exaggerated, but it is essentially accurate. Men and women really were that stifled and insecure and brave and stupid about their own lives. When we look at these trapped individuals now, through the eyes of this empathetic young filmmaker, we want to laugh and we want to cry. Some of the situations border on the ludicrous: the perfect homemaker brings a surprise dinner to her late-working husband's office, only to find him giving a strange man more sexual attention than he's given her in ages; later, when a shrink fails to "cure" her mate of his homosexuality, she travels around town with her notably virile black gardener and is then shocked to hear she's become the subject of vicious gossip among her narrow-minded neighbors. Yet somehow Haynes and his players maintain a delicate balance and never slip into camp or parody. We take these tormented, intensely vulnerable people seriously, and we never stop worrying about them.

We have reason to worry, because we know that Todd Haynes' ending will be far from heaven and much bleaker than anything Douglas Sirk was ever allowed to show.