In this film heavily-inspired by the 1950s melodramas of director Douglas Sirk, housewife Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) seems to have a perfect life. It's the autumn of 1957 and she's living in peaceful Hartford, Connecticut with her sales executive husband (Dennis Quaid) and two children. Their large suburban house is beautiful, as are Cathy's clothes, as are the sophisticated and well-attended parties Cathy throws to support and celebrate her husband's business. Even the local paper has decided to write a piece on her charmed and inspiring existence.
But two unexpected events coincide to disrupt everything. Cathy befriends the new gardener, a handsome black man named Raymond (Dennis Haysbert). They innocently bond over their shared admiration of modern art, yet seeing them in public together soon has most of the town scandalized. Around the same time, Cathy walks in on her husband kissing another man. He admits he used to have homosexual desires when he was younger, but never expected them to recur this much later. Cathy is absolutely blindsided, but supports him as he begins regular visits to a doctor to try to cure his “ailment.” The whole ordeal puts a great deal of strain on their marriage and Cathy begins to rely on Raymond emotionally more than she ever intended.
Best part of story, including ending:
The entire film, from the dialogue to the score to the font used for the credits, is crafted as if it were genuinely made in the 1950s rather than 2002. This could possibly be off-putting for audience members who are expecting a realistic, updated, truth-behind-the-glamour exposé on mid-century suburbia. Nope, here the kids are squeaky clean and say things like “Aw, shucks!” Any kissing in bed is done with at least one foot planted firmly on the floor. Yet the film is so skillfully made that it never delves into parody. It's a dedicated tribute, done with such care that it really is a technical marvel.
The movie works on two levels---one can simply get swept up in the good old-fashioned dramatic, romantic storyline full of weeping and longing glances. But they can also admire how much the filmmakers nailed about the genre of cinematic melodrama. The film could be seen, specifically, as a companion piece to the 1955 Douglas Sirk film “All that Heaven Allows.” That movie also has an upper-middle class woman falling in love with the gardener (although they are separated by a significant age difference rather than race). It too is full expressive objects and colors (lush pastels, autumn leaves, cold blue light) that speak the feelings the repressed characters dare not utter. The main difference is that Sirk's films were a subtle, tentative criticism of an uptight society he was still very much having to answer to. Half a century later, the criticism and subject matter are allowed to be much more blatant, with a knowing wink about how far we've come.
Best scene in story:
Cathy's discovery of her husband's infidelity with another man is wonderfully suspenseful. The audience already knows which way his eye has been wandering, but Cathy doesn't have a clue. Thinking he is working late at the office, she happily stops by to bring him leftovers from dinner. But the office appears suspiciously empty and shadowy as she walks through it, the music starting to ramp up, and we just dread what she's going to find out and how she's going to react.
Opinion about the main character:
Julianne Moore does a great job replicating the crisp, measured acting style of Hollywood's days of yore. She portrays Cathy as sweet, gentle, and a little naive. She's not the most layered or complex character in the world (she says early in the film that she has no real hopes or dreams), but she's not supposed to be. She's supposed to be earnest enough that you root for her as she is thrust into difficult situations. I'd say this is done quite successfully. Her patience and her open-mindedness are also endearing.