- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

The Brits have milked the “stiff upper lip” thing for about, oh, the last century or so. Still, it’s endlessly compelling to watch the well-bred, the well-coiffed, the well-tailored and the well-everything-else brought low by passion, jealousy, lust — all the stuff that happens below the brain area of the human body.

“The Heart of Me,” a British art film that opened Friday at the Avalon Theatre in Chevy Chase, is an attempt to scratch through that Victorian sheen of propriety and reveal the flesh and blood beneath those buttoned-up Britons in their tight collars, bespoke suits and evening gowns.

It’s adapted from Rosamond Lehmann’s 1953 novel “The Echoing Grove,” itself a story loosely based on the author’s affair with British poet laureate C. Day-Lewis, but it seems to take its cues as much from Anthony Powell’s 12-novel sequence “A Dance to the Music of Time.”

Like the Powell series, “Heart” is about upper-crust English society coyly negotiating its way through the epoch of the world wars. While Hitler was revving up his death machine, the English were going about their business of industry and trade, plush dinner parties and torrid affairs.

They had just wasted a generation of sons on the continent, so who could blame them for wanting to return to their high-class frivolities?

There are no overt indications, aside from an air raid or two and a battered London townhouse, that the world had gone to hell — again — during 1934 and 1946, the period covered by “Heart.” Director Thaddeus O’Sullivan clearly wanted it that way: This is a highly personal movie, and there are no private-rank soldiers to be saved or brothers to be banded.

But snore not: There are marriages to be betrayed and illegitimate babies to come out stillborn.

Rickie Masters (Paul Bettany, the phantom roommate of John Nash in “A Beautiful Mind”) is an upper-middle-class Englishman married to the cold, calculating Madeleine (Olivia Williams, known best on this side of the Atlantic for her role in “The Sixth Sense”).

When the movie opens, we’re in the middle of a funeral. But Nicholas Hooper’s playfully elegant score indicates that we’re in for something ironic; something naughty, no doubt, in the “Masterpiece Theatre” style of roguishness.

It’s not long before Madeleine takes in her radical-chic boho sister, Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter), as they, and their draconian mother (Eleanor Bron), adjust to life without the family’s patriarch.

In contrast to her prim sister, Dinah is a floozy wastrel who hangs out with artsy types; she reads Blake poems and dabbles in Trotskyism; and she wears her hair in flaming curls. Rickie falls for her almost immediately, of course.

“Heart” unwinds its narrative with post-World War II flashbacks shared by the two sisters. Cute as it is, it becomes a bit of an affectation as more and more foreshadowings are sprinkled along the trail. At some point, the movie becomes a kind of morbid guessing game as to who died, and how.

Did Rickie succumb to a stomach-ulcer ailment, or was his death war-related? What happened to Rickie and Madeleine’s son Anthony (Luke Newberry)? Was he old enough to enlist in the war?

These contrivances aside, “Heart” is a successful piece of drama. Just watch Mr. Bettany and Miss Williams in their climactic love scene, which calls for brute violence, resignation, despair and buried passion, all in one go.

No one knows how to snatch tragedy from the jaws of romance quite like the British.

***

TITLE: “The Heart of Me”

RATING: R (Sexual situations; nudity)

CREDITS: Directed by Thaddeus O’Sullivan. Produced by Martin Pope. Written by Lucinda Coxon, based on Rosamond Lehmann’s novel, “The Echoing Grove.” Photography directed by Gyula Pados. Music by Nicholas Hooper.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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