The British love their melodramas. The makers of this one seem to have lost sight of when having too much of it becomes boring and burdensome. Based on a 1953 novel called The Echoing Grove by Rosamond Lehmann, the style of sentimentality brought to intense levels of angst amid constricting mores seems aimed at audiences of that era. As a new release, Lucinda Coxon's screenplay is likely to foster ennui well before it reaches its climax (no pun intended).
The plot is thin, if not threadbare, presenting the too-oft-seen love triangle. Perhaps the notion of a pair of sisters in love (in their particular ways) with one's husband seemed like an original idea, but it comes off as derivative and tedious. Paul Bettany, who played Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and John Nash's imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind, takes on the colorless banker-husband-lover Rickie, the object of the sisters' desires. Stuffy though he may be, we understand why he's prone to stray from his wife, Madeleine (Olivia Williams), a caustic and chilly socialite who criticizes her younger sister with haughty superiority. She seems to think that there's something wrong with Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter) for remaining unmarried and free-spirited when, as we see it, Dinah is the more attractive and sensual of the two.
Dinah, at the urging of ever-scheming mother (Eleanor Bron), finally agrees to a marriage with a rich suitor devoid of anything to recommend him except his money. The engagement is short-lived, however, as Dinah blows it off. Spurning such a compromise to her own values, she chooses the unencumbered if impoverished life, content in the arms and adulation of Rickie, with poetry and destiny in the balance.
But life isn't controllable or straightforward, with Dinah's pregnancy followed by the contrivance of a car accident leading to much tribulation, discovery, and enough changes of fortune to examine every possible combination of distress that the plot can generate within its 1930s to early-1940s war years framework. The adversity piles on until we realize that the vessel is no longer afloat. An excess of emotional extremity, marked by recriminations, threatened suicide, guilt, repression, and period posturing have weighed down this cargo ship of a movie until it has sunk.
It has all the touches of a Harlequin novel, the suffering for love as the core issue of life. Even the title, The Heart of Me, beats that dead horse into a pulp.
Carter is a real original in English period pieces and she's as capable and expressive as ever, evoking memories of her early career. Her extensive talent is just not enough to overcome the gravity of this offense, and she's well advised to venture instead into the lighter delights of a Novocaine, Live from Baghdad, and Planet of the Apes. Olivia Williams, who also in A Knight's Tale as well as The Postman and The Sixth Sense, plays the unlikable sister with hints of melancholy and dimension.
It's official timing of 96 minutes strains credulity. Maybe in 1953 it would have seemed trim. In 2003, it feels twice that long.
Her heart will go on.