"Far From Heaven," starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid, is one of those rare movies that works superbly well on more than one level.
Most viewers will appreciate it as the deeply moving story of three well-meaning people caught in a difficult tangle of misplaced hopes and unsatisfied emotions.
It also has a clear social conscience, calling attention to issues that go far beyond the personal problems of its characters. And it's an exquisite achievement in film style by director Todd Haynes, reviving time-tested conventions of 1950s' melodrama. These have gone out of fashion, but they haven't lost their ability to touch the hearts and minds of moviegoers.
Moore plays Cathy Whitaker, a picture-perfect model of the postwar American housewife - devoted to her spacious house and well-behaved children, and quietly proud of her spouse's success in the business world. His name is Frank, and, to all appearances, he's an equally fine, high-achieving husband who supports his suburban brood with energy and flair.
Frank's inner life is more complicated than it seems, though. He is beset by forbidden urges that he can't shake off, no matter how hard he tries. One night he succumbs to them, wandering into a gay bar and returning to his office with a man. When Cathy arrives with a home-cooked dinner to give him, she catches the two in an illicit embrace.
Disgraced and ashamed, Frank agrees to psychiatric treatment that he hopes will rid him of such impulses, but it doesn't work, despite his sincere efforts.
Unable to confide in her judgmental friends, Cathy seeks solace in companionship with Raymond, the gentlemanly black gardener who works for them. Their relationship deepens into strong affection, and tongues in the neighborhood start wagging. Caught between a shattered marriage and a friendship her community won't tolerate, Cathy tries to understand her emotions and find a path to happiness that seems to move further from her grasp.
Fans of old movies will recognize "Far From Heaven" as a modified remake of Douglas Sirk's great 1955 drama "All That Heaven Allows," starring Jane Wyman as an attractive widow and Rock Hudson as the younger man she falls in love with, incurring the same kinds of disapproval Cathy meets in "Heaven."
Sirk's movie was also remade in 1974 by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose widely seen "Ali - Fear Eats the Soul" upped the ante on the original plot by making the widow an old woman and the young man a dark-skinned immigrant.
Haynes works another transformation on the story, spotlighting two kinds of bigotry that still remain prevalent today.
Sirk himself explored racial prejudice during the '50s in "Imitation of Life," his finest film, but homosexuality was a subject that could only be hinted at in that heavily censored era.
Haynes takes on these still-relevant topics with enormous tact and sensitivity, making a forthright plea for compassion while avoiding any hint of sensationalism.
He also does a masterly job of re- creating Sirk's passionate visual style, using a delicious sense of aesthetic artifice to convey feelings as rich and profound as anything today's tricked-up filmmaking techniques are capable of generating.
Equal praise goes to the cast: Moore and Quaid give Oscar-worthy performances. Dennis Haysbert's portrayal of Raymond is a revelation.
Haynes is a prodigiously gifted director - his "Safe" and "Dottie Gets Spanked" rank with the past decade's most brilliant movies - and this new masterpiece reconfirms him as one of world cinema's most brightly shining stars.
Easily the best American film so far this year, "Far From Heaven" is close to perfect.
• Rated PG-13; contains brief sex, a small amount of vulgar language, and adult themes.