The Heart of Me
Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Williams, Paul Bettany, Eleanor Bron, Luke Newberry. (2003, R, 96 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., July 25, 2003
Sibling rivalry takes an adulterous turn in The Heart of Me, a compactly made British film about two very different sisters in love with the same man in 1930s London. It’s all veddy stiff-upper-lip – this is romance from a masochist’s point of view – and the intimacy of the emotions often feels cramped. But the turgidness that informs many of the British cinema’s forays into Masterpiece Theatre territory is thankfully absent from The Heart of Me (a truly terrible title), largely due to its single-minded focus on the doomed love triangle. Right away, following services for their deceased father, the friction between the cold sophisticate Madeleine (Williams) and the free-spirited bohemian Dinah (Carter) is evident. The film makes passing references to paternal favoritism and childhood slights as reasons for Madeleine’s veiled envy of her younger sister, but you never really grasp the reason for their estrangement, other than the fact that they’re polar opposites in every way. Of course, once Dinah begins an affair with Madeleine’s unhappy husband, Ricky (Bettany), you can easily appreciate why blood is not always thicker than water. There’s never any doubt that Ricky and Dinah’s dangerous liaison will come to no good; after all, not long after it begins, he’s shagging her in the bushes at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, rather than kissing his already suspicious wife. Even though there’s no suspense about what will ultimately happen here, the film’s temporal shifts between the pre- and postwar years give it a sense of revelation that keeps the narrative interesting. The three principals are fine, although none are stellar. As the elegantly brittle Madeleine, Williams keeps the character from slipping into one-dimensionality – you can see the fear beneath that Martha Stewart exterior. Bonham Carter’s performance as Dinah also captures the paradox of her character, who is at once unsteady and yet firmly in control of herself. (And while there are intimations that Dinah is hopelessly dowdy, particularly in comparison to her sister, Bonham Carter has never looked more beguiling and beautiful onscreen.) As the man in the middle, Bettany is not very interesting until Ricky starts to disintegrate under the pressure of leading a double life. Watching him crumble is the best thing about The Heart of Me. It’s during these moments, when love is at once a godsend and a damnation, that you come closest to experiencing something poetic in this otherwise serviceable melodrama.