Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 10, 2003 6:33 pm 
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Standard romance

The Heart of Me is a romance of a standard sort: wild passion conflicts with the calls of convention and family loyalty. Loves flourish and wither, people die, it’s very sad, but somehow things end with a peaceful and satisfying sense of resolution. The whole thing might seem as schmaltzy as it is corny if it weren’t for superior acting, a fine sense of period, and complete conviction on the part of the filmmakers.

Londoners Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter), Madeleine (Olivia Williams) and Rickie (Paul Bettany) form a triangle in a story that spans the period from 1935 to 1945. It soon emerges that although Rickie is married to Madeleine and they have a young son (Anthony), he has long been madly in love with his wife’s more beautiful and wilder sister, Dinah. When Dinah’s engagement to a drab individual is announced (very shortly after a parental funeral) at a big family dinner, Rickie goes to Dinah’s bedroom (she is living in their house) to say, “Break it off!” and Dinah immediately agrees. This loyal decision on Dinah’s part sets the affair’s energy up a notch higher. A system of sharp contrasts is continually pursued between the practical, family-oriented, plain, (but still Thirties-stylish) Madeleine, who looks upon love in marriage as an obligation rather than a natural impulse, and the spirited, bohemian Dinah. The adulterous pair make love in the grass and read together Dinah’s favorite Blake poem which speaks of eternal love and eternal forgiveness, both necessary features of the relationship, since Rickie has no intention of giving up his marriage to Madeleine.

Dinah becomes pregnant by Rickie and goes to a cottage in the country with her lesbian roommate to have it. Well, when the baby comes Dinah almost dies, the baby girl is lost, and Rickie cracks up his car in the snow trying to get there. The doctor finds Rickie’s only scratched up a bit but discovers that he has a serious heart problem. Recuperating, Dinah tells Rickie everything’s changed now: the affair is over. The botched birth has ruined things. She doesn’t want to see him any more. The whole business has scared Rickie away from continuing to risk his respectability and security and the loyalty of Madeleine and he takes Dinah at her word.

But it doesn’t stay that way. The bold Dinah turns needy and pleads with Rickie for things to start up again. He rebuffs her, but rushes to her flat just in time to halt a suicide attempt. Meanwhile Madeleine has found out about the affair, though not everything. Rickie and Dinah go back and forth. He orders a silver bracelet made for her proclaiming their love with the favorite line from Blake, but collapses outside the shop with a heart attack. In his recovery, he pledges to give up the affair. Jump forward: World War II has just ended, England is ravaged and Dinah comes to visit Madeleine in her house. Both Rickie and Anthony are dead, the latter as a soldier, Rickie from a heart attack. The story is completed by flashbacks while Dinah and Madeleine have a sparse post-war lunch. These sequences are pieced together somewhat confusingly; viewers may be forgiven for having trouble with the sequence. What is clear is that after a long recovery period Rickie has been killed in an explosion whilst going back to pick up the silver bracelet – the sequence of time between order and attempted pickup is unclear – just after he has learned that the shop was destroyed hours earlier in an air raid. It seems the line on the bracelet about unending forgiveness now applies to Madeleine and Dinah: during the afternoon the two sisters agree to make peace with each other. A bitterly sad moment occurs when Madeleine, who doesn’t know about the lost baby, speaks of Anthony saying to Dinah, “I know you’ve had some hard times, but there’s nothing like losing a child.”

The Heart of Me, for all the drama, lacks emotional punch. It’s pervaded by a weepy sense of tragedy that’s a little too pat: all three principals cry quite a lot, Rickie as much as the ladies, but there’s a conventionality about the story that disallows emotional surprises. And yet, it still has the courage of its convictions, and Williams, Carter, and Bettany all turn in absolutely first-rate performances. Others have commended the actresses, but I’d like to point to Bettany’s fine balance of self control and intense feeling. The sense of wildness hiding behind a mask of conventionality might have made this a role for Dirk Bogarde, and Bogarde would have added an extra touch of angst; but Bettany has his own kind of edge, a more muscular, threatening energy, as we saw in the flashier part he plays in Gangster No. 1.

This kind of plot isn’t designed to develop character: its primary aim is to keep the female reader turning pages. The movie weakens that page-turner effect by somewhat bungling the continuity of the narrative. The flashbacks become too long and too confusing, till the point where Rickie’s conflicting loyalties cease to make logical sense. Since movies tend to, and often must, simplify and even emasculate novel plots, there’s a lot of background lost about things like what Rickie does, what sort of families they’re from, and what the public reaction was to all this misbehavior in what is clearly a very proper, if not quite upper-class family. Or are all the shots of Rickie putting on well made shirts with stud collars (I’ve never seen so many shirt-donning scenes) meant to indicate high birth?

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