Map Of The Human Heart Review
The world was introduced to the films of Vincent Ward through his second film, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988), a visually striking work, showing the influence of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Much of the director’s early themes here would resurface in the brief period he worked on Alien 3 (1992), changing a small isolated 14th century Cumbrian community under threat from the black death to an isolated planet community of prisoners under threat from alien death. After he was replaced on the Alien project, Ward put his energies back into a more personal film bearing many of the his favourite themes that go back to his New Zealand debut Vigil (1984) - outsiders, visionaries, small isolated communities and culture shock. The difference here was that with the money he had earned from the Alien project and the backing of the Weinstein brothers, he was able to put his exceptional cinematic vision onto the screen on a much more epic scale in Map of the Human Heart.
Avik (Jason Scott Lee) is a half-breed Eskimo, living in a remote region of the Arctic. Pestering customers, explorers and workers at a bar, he tells tall tales of his adventures for a glass of whiskey. When a mapmaker (John Cusack) arrives at the outpost, it prompts Avik to tell the incredible story of his life. Diagnosed with tuberculosis as a child, he is transported in the plane of explorer and mapmaker Walter (Patrick Bergin) to a clinic in Montreal. There he meets a young girl in similar circumstances to himself, an Indian half-breed called Albertine. After his return from the hospital, Avik finds himself isolated from his community, a bearer of bad luck who is unable to successfully hunt for himself and his grandmother. He returns to the white man’s world to find it at war and becomes a pilot in England where he meets a couple of old faces from the past and finds a love that has not died.
Map of the Human Heart is a deeply romantic film, a sweeping love story set against the backdrop of the Second World War. With childhood romances, melodramatic twists of fate that keep the lovers apart and contrivances that bring them back together, the sheer emotional course and huge scope of the film at times threatens to tip it over into excessive, tear-jerking melodrama. These traits of emotional manipulation would be taken further in Ward’s subsequent film, What Dreams May Come – a wonderfully imaginative film that strayed just a shade too far into over-sentimentality, particularly through its casting of Robin Williams. The visual opulence of that film can also be seen here in Map of the Human Heart. Stunningly photographed by Eduardo Serra (Girl With A Pearl Earring, The Hairdresser's Husband), it can also be somewhat overwhelming, from the sheer natural beauty of the on-location Arctic photography to the stunning scenes of the lover’s trysts in the Royal Albert Hall and on the top of an air balloon. Gabriel Yared’s synthetic orchestrations also threaten to swamp the film, but they are entirely appropriate for the excessive emotional and visual content of the film. Also striking are the visualisations of the bombing of Dresden. Powerful at the time the film was made, they do look a little bit false and model-like now to an audience used to the refinement of computer graphics. It’s perhaps the Dresden episode also that gives rise to the film’s single most over-the-top situation, when it tries to appropriate the bombing of the German town as the act of a personal vendetta over an affair of the heart.
Indeed there’s very little restraint here in either subject matter or presentation, yet the film still has remarkable charm. What makes this somewhat less pompous than the similarly-themed The English Patient are the early childhood sequences of Avik and Albertine at the hospital, and it’s the memory and background of these children, who they are and where they come from that give a little more sympathy and character to their adult counterparts. Some restraint is also shown in the running-time of the film – the director resisting the temptation to draw scenes out beyond all endurance. Structurally, the film also holds together well. The film has a beautiful symmetry and makes good use of objects such as mirrors and maps for symbolic and emotional resonance, even if the theme of using maps, x-rays and war reconnaissance photographs as a symbol of capturing the emotional designs of human love and desire is also a little overblown.
The video quality on the United States Region 1 release of Map of the Human Heart is not perfect, but it’s certainly not disappointing. Presented anamorphically-enhanced in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, it’s great to see the film in its full scope format – even if Eduardo Serra’s stunning cinematography loses quite a lot when reduced to the small screen. The image is slightly grainy throughout, but there are few marks or scratches on a fairly clean and clear print. Colour levels are fair but fluctuate now and again, and there is no great detail visible – nighttime scenes particularly are very dark and it is difficult to distinguish clearly what is on the screen. For the most part however, the film looks pretty good.
The film’s audio track is presented in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and it’s solid throughout, without ever being really impressive. Voices are clear, sound effects are powerful and the score comes across effectively.
The film is in English so no subtitles are required – there are however one or two lines of Inuit spoken. The default subtitle track provides a translation for these lines, but they are removable. English and English for hard of hearing subtitles are also provided as well as Spanish subtitles.
Four deleted scenes are included, only one of any real length or substance – the ‘Bunny Ears’ sequence that Miramax have used, bizarrely and inappropriately, for the DVD cover. The quality of the deleted scenes, presented in letterboxed 2.35:1, is reasonably good although the quality on the ‘Bunny Ears’ sequence is of lesser quality, looking like a tape dupe. But the scenes are worth including here in any form. The only other extra feature on the disc is a Miramax trailer showreel.
With only four films to his name in twenty years, Vincent Ward doesn’t exactly rush his projects, but he does make them visually striking and fairly unique. Map of the Human Heart is not as daringly original as the director’s earlier The Navigator, but it wears its influences less openly and is an accomplished piece of adventurous filmmaking. It does demonstrate a tendency towards romantic melodrama that can be a bit overwhelming and reduce even hardened reviewers to tears (be warned), but its charm and sheer visual presence just about carry it off. It would be great to have the film on DVD in whatever form, so it’s particularly pleasing to see it looking reasonably good on the Miramax Region 1 release.