The Heart of Me Review

London, 1934. The Heart of Me begins with the funeral of the father of Madeleine (Olivia Williams) and Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter). Madeleine is married to Rickie (Paul Bettany) and they have a young son, Anthony (Luke Newberry). Dinah soon after announces her engagement but Rickie, who has long harboured an attraction for her, tells her to finish the betrothal and they begin an affair which has devastating consequences.

The period literary adaptation has been a staple of British cinema for decades, but gained particular impetus in the mid 1980s with the success of Merchant Ivory’s E.M. Forster adaptations, A Room with a View and Howards End. With a Conservative government in power at the time, these films and their many imitators were often seen as peddling a “heritage” view of Britain, and promoting literary values rather than cinematic ones. Many of these novels depend on nuances of character rather than plot, and can seem very undernourished in the third-person medium of cinema. True, the worst of these films were certainly turgid and dialogue-heavy despite arrays of prestigious actors and first-rate production values. Inevitably a backlash set in, which continues to this day, and now many filmmakers adapting a novel – British or occasionally American, usually published in the first half of the twentieth century – go out of their way to distance themselves from this tradition. (A good example was Michael Winterbottom’s Jude, out of Thomas Hardy, which took its visual cues from the French New Wave.) It’s fashionable to knock Merchant Ivory, but I won’t do that here, as they have been doing their own thing for more than forty years and their best films are very good by any standard. It’s not fair to judge them on their inferior imitators, and unfortunately The Heart of Me is one.

The film is based on Rosamond Lehmann’s The Echoing Grove (published relatively late for this genre’s source material, in 1953), which I haven’t read. You can’t fault the quality of the cast, or the care with which the film has been made. Thaddeus O’Sullivan began his career as a cinematographer, and he and his Hungarian DP Gyula Pados ensure the film looks good at least. But somehow the film remains uninvolving. Putting Helena Bonham Carter in a film like this is simply lazy casting: she’s been appearing in period pieces for two decades now, and there’s nothing in The Heart of Me that you haven’t seen from her before. Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams are newer names, though just as capable actors. Bettany fails to do much with a basically unsympathetic role. Williams comes off better as the wronged Madeleine. Her best scene is at the New Year’s Party twenty-odd minutes in, where you can see all manner of conflicting emotions play across her face: enjoyment of the spectacle, but an awareness that something is not quite right…as her husband and sister are busy committing adultery in a nearby room.

Half an hour in, the film starts a series of flashforwards to 1946, and a meeting of the two sisters. O’Sullivan and Pados shoot this in brownish-earth tones. In these scenes we find out the fate of two characters. Perhaps this was intended to cast a fateful shadow over the final scenes, but it has the effect of draining them of drama and impact. The last scene would be more effective if O’Sullivan and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon hadn’t provided the film with built-in plot spoilers. Even so, the scene is probably too restrained for its own good.

Pathe’s DVD, which is encoded for Region 2 only, has an anamorphic transfer in the ratio of 1.85:1, which I have no doubt is the intended one. Most of the scenes are given a slightly soft, gauzy look, which makes the backgrounds a little grainy, and the colour scheme is more pastel than bold in hue. Blacks are solid, and shadow detail is fine. I have no doubt that all this is intentional, and I could find nothing wrong with the picture quality at all, so full marks. There are sixteen chapter stops.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1. This is a dialogue-driven film, so this isn’t really one to give your speakers a workout. Even the sound of a bomb going off during an air-raid scene is much more restrained than it would be in other films. There are some directional effects, but mostly the surrounds are given over to Nicholas Hooper’s score. This is string-dominated and almost entirely in the treble register, so the subwoofer doesn’t get a lot of use.

The main extra is a commentary by Thaddeus O’Sullivan and Lucinda Coxon. It’s an informative commentary, with some rapport between the two speakers, though not the most engaging ever committed to tape. As befits a former DP, O’Sullivan does spend much time discussing the look of the film, while Coxon does mention some differences between Lehmann’s novel and her screenplay. It’s a worthwhile listen, but I doubt one you’ll be returning to very often.

There is one deleted scene, introduced by Coxon, an encounter between Dinah and Rickie, which runs 4:18 (including the introduction). It’s in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and is quite washed out compared to the main feature, with some noticeable artefacting. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is fairly hollow-sounding. Finally, there’s the trailer, anamorphic 1.85:1 and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack this time, running 2:16.

There clearly is an audience for upmarket, well-acted, essentially tasteful literary adaptations like this, and maybe I’m not part of it. You’ll know if you are. The picture can’t be faulted, and the extras are decent if not outstanding.

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