Three’s a crowd
Under layers of starched collars and polished shoes, beats the heart of an old-fashioned, tearjerking romantic drama.
Adapted from The Echoing Grove, a 1953 novel, The Heart of Me is an elegant and heartfelt piece of work. The three leads deliver finely crafted performances, unearthing the hot-blooded passions beneath the icy, quintessential English exterior of the 1930s.
Ricky (Paul Bettany) and Madeleine (Olivia Williams) are a wealthy refined couple, well-situated in London’s social scene. When Madeleine’s father dies, her free-spirited, Bohemian sister, Dinah (Helena Bonham-Carter) comes to stay and London is completely terrified of her zest for life. She falls for Ricky, knowing it will bring more misery than happiness to herself and the rest of the family. Ricky is attracted to the independent streak in his sister-in-law, her passion for life and her disregard for social convention stirs his libido.
However, in Hollywood nothing runs smoothly as Madeleine finds out. The film becomes an emotionally bruising tug-of-war between the sisters. In the end, everybody suffers, the love triangle destroys one of the trio and seriously wounds the other two.
Audiences will probably root for Dinah to prevail. Her bright dresses and hippie philosophy, makes her instantly more likeable than the ice queen wife, but you can’t help but feel sympathy for Madeleine. She seems to fight for her husband because that’s what society expects. Williams is very impressive and Madeleine ends up having the strongest arc of any of the characters, as she comes to realise that society’s rules don’t hold all the answers.
Bettany, better known for extrovert, life-of-the party roles; Russell Crowe’s college roommate in A Beautiful Mind or Chaucer in A Knights Tale, makes a very convincing respectable gent. He plays Ricky with dignity even though he is completely undone by his emotions and unable to follow them through.
A few scenes are set in 1946, as two of the characters reunite to re-examine the damage that was done. Replete with the Spartan décor of war life, these ‘future’ scenes contrast with the luxury of the scenes from a decade earlier. These changes eventually become analogous to the movie’s periods of happiness and sadness. In using flash-forwards, it is an unconventional way to tell a conventional story, making The Heart of Me a surprisingly compelling film to watch.
Williams is very convincing as the socially proper Madeleine, wound up in the world of the middle class. Aside from the occasional scene contrived to make her out to be a pre-war Cruella de Vil, she is entirely believable. Her life turns sour with anger and resentment from her sisters betrayal and she looks for revenge. However, over the years, she mellows and realises there is another option.
The film explores two powerful forces, the shattering consequences of adultery and the healing nature of forgiveness. It is very difficult to soften towards those who have brought us down and caused suffering. When we can see that we are all flawed and vulnerable human beings, it is easier to release the heavy burden of hatred and initiate reconciliation. Watching Madeleine open her heart to her sister is the best part of the film, giving an emotional weight which the film carries well.
By LOUISE PIMM
*** – A precious gift and an enlightening experience