(PG-13) 4 1/2 stars Far From Heaven works on multiple levels. As a recreation of lush "50s cinematic melodrama, it is successful, gloriously so. As a study of everyday bigotry, it packs a surprisingly strong punch. As a tale of people whose dreams lie slightly beyond their grasp, it is beautifully acted and quite moving. With this film, writer/director Todd Haynes takes what could have been a showy exercise and has made something remarkable.

His previous films, Poison, Safe and the ambitious, messy Velvet Goldmine, came off like the efforts of a gifted, but over-intellectual film school student showing off for his peers. With Far From Heaven, Haynes leaves that all behind. His work here is magnificent. Haynes" starting point is the work of legendary 1950s director Douglas Sirk, maker of "women"s pictures" like Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows. The look here is the same: color saturated vistas of an idealized Middle America, perfectly lit and accompanied by an achingly rich score from Elmer Bernstein, one of the grand old men of the genre. The story takes place in "50s Hartford, Conn., in late fall (check out the striking opening crane shot of the city, the trees and the perfect assortment of colorful leaves). Cathy (Julianne Moore) and Frank (Dennis Quaid) Whitley appear to be living the perfect life. He is the executive in charge of the local Magnatech TV company; she is the stay-at-home mother of their two wonderful kids, receiving assists from Cybil (Viola Davis), the devoted family maid. Despite his problems with the bottle, all appears well Ö until Cathy casually walks into her husband"s office and catches him in the arms of another man. "I"m gonna beat this thing," Frank vows, while later admitting (in perfect "50s-speak), "The whole thing has just put me in a foul state." Things get more complicated when white Cathy strikes up a mild friendship with Raymond (Dennis Haysbert, the president in the TV series 24), the soft-spoken, kindly new gardener. While accepted by her neighbors as a liberal (a writer conducting an interview for the Society Page notes that Cathy is "a woman as devoted to her family as she is kind to Negroes"), one-on-one conversations with an athletic, great looking black man is simply too much, and Cathy soon finds herself the object of derision from the good people of Hartford. As regards attitudes toward blacks and gays, Haynes pulls off a neat trick. Knowing that we will initially read the "50s motif as campy, he invites us to react to the bigotry by climbing on a moral high horse, fully aware that we will soon be knocked back off. Early in the film, we listen to the stupid and hateful things the people say about blacks and gays and we laugh, thinking, "My God, people were so foolish back then." But as the film continues and we adjust to the way the characters look and speak, the truth sinks in: These people are not saying anything that isn"t still being said now. Sure, it may be phrased differently now, and, in some quarters, whispered rather than said loudly, but the sentiments remain the same. And if you think the notion of shipping gays off to a hospital to be "cured" is antiquated, then perhaps you"re forgetting the right-wing Christian groups that insist they have programs that convert homosexuals to heterosexuality. Complacency is dangerous and the slap in the face delivered by the film is invigorating, but Haynes has more on his mind than just making a statement. He also is recreating a style of film and telling a story, and does both extraordinarily well. The sets, clothing and hair styles, music and lighting are stunning (check out the establishing shot of a vintage green car sitting next to a police station bathed in blue light). Only the periodic obscenity reminds us that this is a contemporary film and not an uncovered gem from the Sirk days. The story sags in a couple of spots but succeeds because, despite the "50s traits, the characters ring true. Dennis Quaid projects real anguish, finding the suffering man inside the business suit. Likewise, Dennis Haysbert takes his Christ-like character and invests him with real depth. As the maid, Viola Davis does terrific work - speaking volumes with mere glances. But, ultimately, this is Julianne Moore"s show and she is absolutely sensational. Imagine how hard it must have been to find the spot that would be true both to the "50s melodrama and to the character, then sit back and watch Moore smoke! As I wrote the last sentence, an ad for Far From Heaven played on TV and I made a note to see it again on opening day. When you see as many movies as I do, you don"t go back for seconds very often, but with a movie like this, I can easily imagine going back for thirds and fourths as well.

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