The Heart of Me (2003)

D: Thaddeus O'Sullivan
S: Helena Bonham-Carter, Paul Bettany

Though not promising at first glance and initially fairly wearisome in the manner of so many period dramas, director Thaddeus O'Sullivan's adaptation of Rosamond Lehmann's novel The Echoing Grove (written for the screen by Lucinda Coxon) turns out to be both gripping and rewarding. Easily compared with fellow Irish director Neil Jordan's version of The End of the Affair, the story becomes interesting only when its narrative begins to fragment. Told initially in a relatively straightforward fashion as the story of a growing romance between socialite Olivia Williams (Rushmore) and eager suitor Paul Bettany (Gangster No.1), the film slowly and respectfully unfolds with all the tedious detail and unspoken tensions of a garden-variety romance impregnated with the whisper of scandal which comes with the inevitable younger sister played by Helena Bonham-Carter. Set in the 1930s, it relies heavily on meticulous production design by Michael Carlin and art direction by Karen Wakefield, all tastefully and admittedly vividly photographed by Gyula Pados. By the time Williams and Bettany are married and the world begins to move on, the majority of male viewers will have fallen into a bored slumber or simply left the theatre, which is a pity.

The story begins to pick up when the timeline breaks. Leaping forward to the 1940s, the film charts the awkward reunion between Williams and her sister. Something has happened in the past, and the world of the present is one torn by war and evincing a drop in social status which has obviously affected the manner, attitudes, and life experience of this at first deeply uninteresting heroine. Though it may seem like a gimmick, the intercutting of the time periods works extremely well because there is sufficient drama in both to sustain them and because the evolution of the story in each of them depends upon events in the other. The film becomes increasingly intricate and well timed as it goes, and builds to a lovely climax which manages to leave the viewer with a sense of having been excited by the storytelling as much as by the characterisation.

In spite of the cleverness of the screenplay and the delicacy of the visualisations (O'Sullivan, remember, was a cinematographer before he became a director), the film does depend on the performances to give it emotional heft. Bonham-Carter (Planet of the Apes) is an old hand at this sort of thing by now, and brings that weight of experience to her performance. She is able to suggest depth and dimension from underneath the most generically predetermined long pause, and though she is some way ahead of Williams in her skills, the two work well together because of the contrast between them. Williams is understated, though she is given a fair number of tearful close-ups and confrontations to work in and give the character somewhere to go. Bettany, for his part, is suitably tortured as the man ultimately torn between two sisters (I told you it was pretty standard stuff on the surface). Though he doesn't quite plumb the depths of empathy, there are some powerful twists in the plot which elicit sympathy for his situation, and this works to the advantage of the performer. The villain of the piece (two-timing Bettany aside) is the imposing Eleanor Bron as the girls' mother. This character is determined to retain a sense of propriety in the face of the infidelities and refuses to engage with the idea that her son-in-law may have genuinely come to a heartfelt conviction that he fell in love with the wrong woman. Though it is the stuff of classic melodrama, the actor's portrayal of the self-appointed guardian of social order is believable and hissable all at once, which gives the story a tremendous boost.

The Heart of Me is a second string to Jordan's searing powerhouse, but it is a pleasant surprise given how it starts out. Whereas Jordan's 'diary of hate' hooked the viewer from its opening scene, it takes some time for The Heart of Me to get going, and when it does it is the deftly constructed narrative and solid performances which hold the story together rather than the strength and depth of its convictions. All things considered, it is better to be a respectable second to The End of the Affair than to be a disastrous industrial by-product of Boorman's The General like the director's previous Ordinary Decent Criminal. The Heart of Me is a worthwhile film in its own right and it finds a register to match form and content without losing touch with its core audience. It is a film which is likely to reach a crossover audience of handkerchief honkers while offering the pleasures of a well mounted piece of cinematic narrative for the more cynical among us who nearly dropped off to sleep during the establishing scenes.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.