The Heart of Me (2002)

2003-06-13 (Limited release)

Love is a many splendored thing. Unless, of course, it tears through your life like a cluster bomb, breaking your home, heart, and head apart. The principals of the complicated and powerful The Heart of Me (based on Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel, The Echoing Grove) are a case study in the tenuous nature of love’s bipolarity, at turns blissfully saved and irreversibly crippled by love’s electric unpredictability.

There’s little that could be called electric or unpredictable about Rickie (Paul Bettany) and Madeleine (Olivia Williams), a prim and proper married couple in London’s high society when the film opens in 1934. Theirs is a stoic union, marked by cheek pecks and formalwear. Rickie and Madeleine talk to each other more like vaguely affectionate coworkers than young lovers. Every room in the home they share with their grade school age son is photographed in cold blues, sterile greens, and hospital whites, like the couple’s ineffectuality bleaches everything around them.

Madeleine’s sister Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter) comes to occupy one of those rooms following the death of their father. Dinah is everything her sister is not. A “collector of passions,” as Madeleine’s calls her, Dinah is fire to her ice. She’s eccentric and impulsive, a poetic free spirit prone to late night walks through the rain, collecting nude sketches (perhaps of herself), donning kabuki face paint to scare off potential suitors, and reading up on socialist rebellion in China. She’s vibrant and childlike, as if jostled along by some erratic and elusive current.

Which, of course, makes her extremely attractive to Rickie. He looks at Dinah and sees what he wants: she quickly becomes the burst of blood in his chest. When he decides to externalize his feelings, which become powerful enough to be more accurately described as “quivering, explosive, lustful obsession,” Dinah obliges, and the wheels start falling off.

What follows is an impressively judgment-free evocation of three people driven by seemingly uncontrollable impulses. There’s so much sweetness in the way Dinah and Rickie seem to be set on fire by each other; pawing like college freshman, reading Blake on picnic blankets, flying kites against an orange sky, their love plays pure and pretty music. The apartment where they spend most of their time is always glowing, all soft lamp lighting and bright wall paintings and luscious bowls of fruit. (When Rickie goes home to Madeleine, the contrast is sharp enough to make you think he’s visiting bodies in an autopsy lab; director of photography Gyula Pados deserves a merit badge for her work here.) It’s almost enough to make you forget that Rickie and Dinah are destroying their family and completely betraying the most important person in their lives beside themselves.

A series of juicy plot twists that would be unfair to give away here wreak havoc on their naïve bliss and, consequently, pretty much destroy Rickie and Madeleine’s marriage and the sisters’ relationship. The resulting endgame percolates with neurotic insecurity, painful deceit, busted opportunity, and pervasive regret, but the movie never capsizes under its own weight.

Much of the credit for that sizable accomplishment can be attributed to the three leads. Bonham Carter’s role is the flashiest, and she tears into Dinah’s loose cannon bursts with a tantalizing sensuality. She looks like she’s always falling in love, soaking everything in through perennially dilated pupils. Bonham Carter also understands Dinah’s subtext perfectly. Being the odd-duck in a proper family entrenched in such a starched social context exacerbates Dinah’s need for attention, be it good or bad, from her straight-laced big sister, and Bonham Carter brings out her subtle hunger.

Williams, by contrast, remains emotionally corseted during the film’s first act, so consumed with being ladylike that she almost forsakes her humanity in the process. But the way she cracks when confronted with the unreal transgressions of her husband and sister is anything but reined in. As Madeleine loses her husband to her weirdo kid sister, Williams capably weaves her shock and distaste for that hard truth into her deep self-pity.

Williams and Bonham Carter are matched step for step by the remarkable Paul Bettany. Handed the film’s most complex and important role, Bettany responds powerfully and gracefully, caroming from sedate catatonia to reawakened ecstasy to self-involved despair and, ultimately, hollow acceptance and silent denial without ever making an easy, empty choice. He wears the film’s tortured soul in his face at all times, light as air during his happiest moments with Dinah, and fraught with rage during his ugliest moments with Madeleine. Bettany holds The Heart of Me in place, and his range gives the film its honesty and edge.

“Edge” probably isn’t the first word you’d connect to a BBC Films period piece set in the England of the 1930s and ’40s. It doesn’t hurt that the ghost of World War II hangs in the air like a flag at half-mast, or that the bombed out shell Hitler tried to turn London into plays a critical role in the film’s climax. Here, the damage without reflects the damage within, and the metaphor works. Love can be a many splendored thing, but The Heart of Me shows that it’s a battlefield, too.