Hearts in Atlantis
review by Elias Savada, 21 September 2001

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks that have ripped our guts out, most, but not all, civilized people have had little reason to escape the security of their homes for blithe entertainment at a neighborhood theater. Most press screenings were cancelled in the days and week that followed the tragedies; indeed openings of several films have been postponed indefinitely in the hope that time will heal the emotional wounds inflicted on all of us. For my wife and I, our need for a personal escape from the televised madness and the devastating numbness of post traumatic syndrome was based in a singular romantic event -- our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary -- that fell the day after the nightmarish events began. We stubbornly headed out for dinner and a preview screening, albeit one with few other souls in the house, of Hearts in Atlantis. It was the perfect tonic to soothe our crushed spirits. And I'm not saying that because it helped us forget the world outside. I had already seen the film twice before -- it was love at first sight. Castle Rock/Warner Bros. pushed back the initial nationwide public previews to the following Friday and Saturday, all the better to build positive word of mouth.

I'll add my rousing drumbeat…if you like the "gentler" side of Stephen King (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and Stand by Me), you'll love Hearts in Atlantis, marvelously adapted by Academy Award-winning screenwriter and author William Goldman (All the President's Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), who is no stranger to the master of horror's appeal. He transformed Misery into one hell of an entertaining film. With Hearts he adds another feather in his well-adapted hat, compressing elements from two of King's stories that appeared in the collection of the same title (Low Men in Yellow Coats and Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling). The latter seventeen-pager is used as the film's framing device that introduces us to fifty-something Robert Garfield (Green Mile's David Morse), a world-renowned photographer with a shelf filled with his coffee-table books and an aging picture of an angel -- a relic that eventually finds a new, heart-rending home in his past. Returning to his home town to attend a funeral, he journeys back forty years to the morning of his eleventh birthday and the magical seasons that follow. Astute readers of King will recognize his universal appeal as a master storyteller and the destiny-tinged elements that envelope his characters. Add in a stranger's supernatural touch and you will notice the obvious similarities between this film and The Green Mile. Goldman graciously retains most of the original's bones, adjusting several of the peripheral elements in fleshing out the main characters and changing the perception of some of the book's gifts in favor of dramatic structure. He pumps up the mystery of the "low men" that threaten Anthony Hopkins' Ted Brautigan by removing their brightly colored overcoats and making them noirish shadows in a conspiratorial landscape. And he helps cement the love of a young boy for his deceased father by replaying a seminal, courageous moment in 1940s football history involving humble Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski.

In that particular scene, director Scott Hicks (Shine, Snow Falling on Cedars), douses the ambient room sound in favor of muted crowd cheers, subliminally intoxicating the viewer and grabbing you into the 1960 world of Bobby Garfield and the recently-arrived upstairs boarder, denizens of the seemingly carefree suburban Connecticut town of Harwich, Connecticut (with several Virginia communities subbing nicely for the period evocation). He closes the camera in on his two actors (Hopkins and Anton Yelchin), pulling engaging performances from the Oscar-winning star and the youngster opposite him. Hicks uses the inspiration found in this film's moments to reinforce Bobby's resolve later on, to call up an inner strength in saving a friend's life.

Hicks likes to skillfully hush his soundtrack in Hearts' destiny-bending framework, but he doesn't overwork the effect. It's as delicate as the wind chime that tinkles on the front porch; as strong as the trains that whistle down the tracks nearby. Hicks is also busy adding old time favorites from The Platters, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and others to liven up the score and help move the moderate pace. As for the thespian talent in this microcosmic human drama, every one of key roles is filled with a perfect match. And Hicks guides them flawlessly, in much the same manner that fellow Aussie director Peter Weir handles his award-winning actors. Hopkins imbues his quietly gentlemanly stranger with a subdued contagious affliction, managing order out of the hounding chaos closing in on him, keeping his new friends safe from harm while trying to save his own spirituality. He's even willing to engage in a bit of flatulent humor, although less than in King's story. The enchantment of his performance is how well he underplays the role, particularly when Ted's other-worldly spells freeze his vacant-eyed glaze and drop his mouth open just so much. Yelchin and Mika Boorem (who were featured together in Along Came a Spider) are blossoming talents. Yelchin's Bobby is an innocent curly-haired child brought face to face with danger, with only one adult's affection and the eternal puppy love of Carol Gerber (Boorem, aka Mel Gibson's daughter in The Patriot), the girl-up-the-street, to guide him through troubled times. There is just the right amount of angst and wonder in Yelchin's expressions and old-beyond-her-young-years' strength in Boorem's angelic looks, allowing these children equal theatrical footing opposite elder statesman Hopkins. Hope Davis, one of my favorite character actresses, is Bobby's self-absorbed mother Liz, a bitter widow forever misplacing blame for her fate on the shoulders of her late husband -- a liability since transferred onto her son. She flits about the screen a matriarch in name only, a shapely yet garish Marilyn Monroe amalgam of blonde hair and red lips looking for love in all the wrong places. Other small parts are filled well by Celia Weston as a woman with a lovely laugh and kind words for Bobby's father, and by Alan Tudyk (A Knight's Tale) as a sniveling carnival card-shuffling monte man.

Everyone and everything clicks. Including the late Polish cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski's intimate camerawork. He helps us recall a childhood of glistening brooks and small town amusements, while also heralding the film's increasing sense of doom with dark, steamy visions of the "low men," those ruthless boogeymen that haunt the murky urban streets in search of their prey. Composer Mychael Danna, who regularly scores Atom Egoyan's films, keeps the notes simple in Hearts, often resorting to a sparse yet winning piano track.

In the end, we are left with that incredible wistful sadness of how life isolates us from our past and those childhood friends that are lost through the ravages of time. Those missed opportunities are the stuff that make Hearts in Atlantis a cautionary, yet soothing, tale. Its hope lies in allowing us to find a way to rebuild ourselves out of the ashes of our hectic existence.

So as our emotional wounds heal, Old Glory is raised back to full staff, Americans head back to the stadium to catch a ballgame, and the late night hosts start telling jokes again, you can mosey over to the mall multiplex and put on a happy face. After having our hearts ripped from us; Hearts in Atlantis miraculously sets them beating again.

A nostalgic gem. My first four star winner of the year.

Directed by:
Scott Hicks

Anthony Hopkins
Anton Yelchin
Hope Davis
Mika Boorem
David Morse
Alan Tudyk
Tom Bower
Celia Weston
Adam Lefevre
Will Rothhaar
Deirdre O'Connell
Timmy Reisnyder

Written by:
William Goldman

N R - Not Rated
This film has not
yet been rated.







www.nitrateonline.com  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.