You can tell that a tearjerker is in trouble when there’s more crying by characters on the screen than there is among members of the audience. That’s the case with “The Heart of Me,” a Fannie Hurst-style weepie dressed up in Masterpiece Theatre trappings. A romantic triangle set in the London of the 1930s and 1940s and involving two dissimilar sisters and the hapless husband of one of them, it’s basically just a formulaic woman’s picture of the sort that Warner Brothers churned out regularly in those same decades; if you close your eyes and ignore the fact that the cliched dialogue is being spoken with British accents, you might easily imagine Betty Davis and Mary Astor as the sniping siblings, with somebody like George Brent as the milquetoast spouse. Those hackneyed old movies, however, were campy and fun, staged with a good deal of panache; in the present instance, director Thaddeus O’Sullivan plays things in so somber and serious a fashion that you might suspect he actually considered the script (adapted by Lucinda Coxon from Rosamond Lehmann’s novel “The Echoing Grove”) some sort of high art. The result is that the pulse rate of this “Heart” is absurdly slow, and the film a drab and listless affair.
Helen Bonham Carter, in her overly familiar colorfully eccentric mode, is Dina, an egregiously unconventional single young woman looked upon as rather an embarrassment by her older sibling Madeleine (Olivia Williams), a prim, self-possessed society sophisticate married to an apparently staid banker incongruously called Ricky (Paul Bettany). The women’s widowed mother (Eleanor Bron) encourages Madeleine to find a mate for Dina, but before long Ricky and his sister-in-law are sleeping together instead. Unsurprisingly, Dina winds up pregnant, and goes off to have the child in seclusion to save Ricky’s marriage. But tragedy strikes (for the first of many times here), and after Madeleine discovers what’s been going on, she drives Ricky to Dina. When the poor fellow suffers a debilitating physical decline, Madeleine and her mother underhandedly use his illness to effect a reconciliation, but it doesn’t keep the flame from burning between him and Dina. The coming of World War II doesn’t help matters, either,
Coxon and O’Sullivan try to spruce up this soap operatic tale by toying around with the chronology, so that fairly early on we skip ahead ten years and then gradually learn what’s transpired over that decade. But it turns out that there aren’t any surprises along the way, and whatever energy the players might have brought to the party is sapped by the stultifying pace. Carter opts for excess, which comes across ham-fistedly in the context of O’Sullivan’s lethargy and the arch, stiff-upper-lip style of all the other performers; a restaurant sequence in which she flips out over Ricky’s refusal to go off with her, for example, is wildly overplayed and acutely embarrassing. Meanwhile Williams and Bettany are so desperate in trying to convey simmering passion under their controlled veneer as to be virtual caricatures of British reserve, and Bron is so snooty that she seems only slightly less the nose-in-the-air matron than Gladys Cooper habitually played. The period sets and costumes are much more expressive than any of the human performers–indeed, the tea-cups and assorted bric-a-brac outdo the animate cast by a considerable margin–but it’s hard to be moved by a production design. Gyula Pados’ dank, washed-out cinematography merely accentuates the gloom, and Nicholas Hopper doesn’t help matters with a score that spotlights violins and cellos moaning away mournfully in the background.
“The Heart of Me” may appeal to those who just can’t get enough of BBC-2. Others are advised to take a No-Doze before venturing to see it.