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Pale Riders

The Heart of Me serves up sad, stuffy English sex

Those of you who'll join me in appreciating heavy skies, hard rain and looming melancholy will find plenty to enjoy in the English costume drama The Heart of Me. The rest of you may scratch your heads in puzzlement, possibly even mild outrage, wondering how Brits, their somber climes notwithstanding, ever could have become this sensationally stiff in all the wrong places. Either way, this atmospheric, emotionally resonant and yet aggressively somnolent exercise delivers something akin to cultural illumination, demonstrating that the randiness of pallid flesh should not be taken lightly.

Based on Rosamond Lehmann's 1953 novel The Echoing Grove (which is a great title), The Heart of Me (which very much isn't) concerns itself almost entirely with a love triangle. Set in pre- and post-WWII England, with many ambitious and awkward flashes to and fro in time, this is the moody family portrait of two radically different sisters and the man they unhappily share. Outwardly dignified Madeleine Masters (Olivia Williams) loves her upstanding banker husband Rickie (Paul Bettany), and they seem to uphold an ideal -- if chilly -- existence. However, when Madeleine's mischievous sister Dinah Burkett (Helena Bonham Carter) moves in with the couple following the death of the family patriarch, unbridled lust arrives with her. "I'm the man of the family now, apparently," deadpans Rickie, not yet comprehending the full scope of his words.

After the requisite formalities of helping eccentric Dinah settle in and reject a few potential suitors (when Madeleine suggests that her sister could do worse, Dinah replies, "I already have"), inner turmoil comes a-knocking. This isn't such a bad thing for the actors, because it affords them several opportunities to furrow their brows and smoke, often within elegantly appointed sets. (Scientific studies have shown that most actors would keel over dead if they weren't allowed regular indulgence of their passions for smoking and brow-furrowing.) Soon enough, once Bonham Carter's sad-sack romantic welcomes Bettany's almost involuntary love-machine, the kettle of worms is opened. Their clandestine affair and its ramifications -- including more than a whiff of doom -- inform most of the rest of the film.

It is well-documented that nearly all English people keep fog machines in their drawing rooms, kitchens and gardens, and indeed these Brits do not disappoint. Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan (Ordinary Decent Criminal) and his cinematographer Gyula Pados take pains to create misty tableaux both inside and out -- the better to frame the unbearable despair of their subjects, presumably. In any case, the effect -- taken in tandem with composer Nicholas Hooper's truly elegant, minor-key pizzicato movements -- generates a hypnotic state wherein one hovers in the twilight between waking and sleeping. This pluvial trance also temporarily erases any memory of better-executed projects in a similar vein, such as either version of The End of the Affair (although Bettany completely kicks Ralph Fiennes' whiny ass).

According to Bonham Carter (a sunny Southern California denizen whom Bettany has described as being "as mad as a chicken with lips"), The Heart of Me is really all about "death and vaginas." The weak of heart may take comfort that both of these entities are kept off-screen (save for a completely gratuitous tilt down to the actress's bloody loins), but their stifling aura becomes ever more prevalent. Going from one of the prettiest and most colorful makeup jobs in recent memory to looking very much like an animated corpse, Bonham Carter, who shepherded this project along, wants to prove something below the belt. One might consider this her bridging of the gap between Merchant-Ivory finery and Hollywood-slut roles like Fight Club or Novocaine.

Whatever her mission, the actress plays brilliantly -- despite one guffaw-inducing clinker -- off both Williams (who was a bit sharper last year in The Man From Elysian Fields) and Bettany (the talented hot potato who here appears to be a talking piece of meat, but perhaps this is the whole idea). Bettany has also revealed that during his steamiest love scene with Bonham Carter, the actress inadvertently challenged him by farting loudly in front of the entire crew. She took credit for it, though, which is the mark of a true professional. Given that it's been 30 years since Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland made true, ostensibly windless love in Don't Look Now, this is a nice new standard of whitey wild-thang. Perhaps swinging from Kenneth Branagh to Steve Martin to Tim Burton in real life makes an actress want to give her all onscreen.

If you're up for woeful romance, Bonham Carter's recent Till Human Voices Wake Us (with Guy Pearce) is more darkly dreamy than this project. But if you want to drift through emotional turmoil and a harrowing loss of security both personal and national, The Heart of Me may provide some soggy satisfaction.

 
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