The Heart of Me
review by Nicholas Schager, 13 June 2003

Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s The Heart of Me, the story of a romantic triangle that consumes, and nearly destroys, three upper crust British family members before and after WWII, is cast in the Merchant/Ivory mold. Mr. O’Sullivan’s film, adapted from a Rosamond Lehmann novel by Lucinda Coxon, attempts to mimic the stately grace and pent-up emotional desire of predecessors The Remains of the Day and Howard’s End, utilizing measured camera work and deliberate performances to convey a world in which societal convention trumps free will, and personal desire is confined to the dank, dusty basement of the heart. It is an imitation infused with little inspiration, but if its portrait of adulterous machinations is as familiar as the sight of Helena Bonham Carter in a period drama, the film nonetheless benefits from performances perfectly calibrated for repressed torment.

Rickie (Paul Bettany) and Madeleine’s (Olivia Williams) marriage comes under stress when Madeleine’s free-spirited sister Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter), after years of traveling, reappears to attend their father’s funeral. Madeleine, a prissy and obnoxious socialite, attempts to play condescending matchmaker for her sister, but when she finds a willing and able suitor, it is Rickie who orders Dinah to break the engagement off. The two siblings-in-law, enflamed by reckless passion, begin a clandestine affair under Madeleine’s nose, but the truth eventually comes out, sparking a battle of wills between Madeleine and Dinah for the affection of Rickie, a docile pawn manipulated as the women in his life see fit. As the affair transforms from playful reverie into destructive force, our sympathies are splintered – while we are supposed to be caught up in Rickie and Dinah’s happiness, we are also repeatedly reminded of Madeleine’s victim status – and this delicate balancing act suggests the complexities of a love affair in which all parties retain some measure of guilt.

O’Sullivan abandons typical period frippery in favor of an austere visual palette and set design that reflects the character’s misery, and this unwillingness to replicate every one of the genre’s tropes is a worthy ambition. His direction, however, is placidly elegant – the constant use of close-ups and zooms alternate between sophistication and self-consciousness – and this competent but dreary guidance frequently steers the story into a torpor. The film is built upon a foundation of unspoken truths and concealed emotions, but O’Sullivan isn’t dexterous enough to navigate through this murky, amorphous territory, and thus resorts to clunky maneuvers – such as using bomb-decimated London as a symbolic reflection of their despair – to flesh out his characters’ chaotic frames of mind.

What allows the film to rise above its awkward construction is a pair of fine performances from Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams, and a truly superb turn courtesy of Paul Bettany. Carter, playing the stereotypically stubborn iconoclast whose interests include nude paintings and smoking, wraps insolence around her frame like a fur coat, embodying Dinah with an alluring petulance. She’s ably matched by Williams, who has the thankless task of eliciting both our contempt and sympathy as the scorned Madeleine, a conniving, cold woman driven to duplicitous lengths to retain her beloved husband. Yet the film’s moderate success can be traced to Bettany, whose Rickie is a roiling bundle of unwanted responsibilities and unattainable yearnings. Desperate to enjoy bliss with Dinah but never bold enough to fully abandon his family and the society that would shun him for such a decision, he’s a man tenuously straddling two worlds. That the film’s pat conclusion absolves him of such a momentous decision is merely one of its shortcomings, but Mr. Bettany, his strikingly supple and open face revealing a naked timidity awash in self-doubt and self-loathing, is certainly worth the price of admission

Directed by:
Thaddeus O'Sullivan

Helena Bonham Carter
Olivia Williams
Paul Bettany
Eleanor Bron
Luke Newberry
Gillian Hanna
Andrew Havill
Shaughan Seymour
Simon Day
Rosie Ede
Paul Ridley

Written by:
Lucinda Coxon

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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