A good cast led by Helena Bonham Carter, Olivia Williams and Paul Bettany brings elegance but not much passion to “The Heart of Me,” an English chamber drama set pre- and post-WWII in which two sisters fall for the same man. Solidly entertaining for those who like their dialogue crisp and with a main verb in every sentence, film will set well on pubcaster channels as a prime slice of BBC fare. However, under Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s careful rather than inspired direction, its theatrical legs look limited.
The time is 1934 and, following the death of their father, Madeleine (Williams) renews her attempts to find a husband for her younger sister, Dina (Bonham Carter), a rebellious flake with a liking for left-wing literature and a habit of scaring off men. Though well-groomed and always ineffably calm, with a young son and banker husband, Ricky (Bettany), Madeleine is aware that Dina was always her dad’s favorite.
When Dina agrees to marry a well-heeled oaf, Ricky asks her to call it off — and soon the two are consummating a long-buried attraction. “I’m more than happy; I’m in a state of hope,” Dina tells him with a cocked eyebrow. When she gets pregnant, and Ricky panics, she lets him off the hook by going away with her female flatmate to have the child in secret.
Pic springs its one major surprise at the start of the third reel by suddenly flashing forward to 1946. Madeleine is now living alone in her spacious but now spartan London house when Dina suddenly turns up. As the sisters lunch together uneasily, flashbacks fill in events of the intervening years.
Turns out Ricky and Dina kept in touch after she ankled the capital, and Ricky even drove down to be there for the birth of their child, who died soon after. When Madeleine discovered the affair by accident, Ricky swore it was over between him and Dina. But then Dina showed up in London and their relationship resumed, followed by later complications.
Bonham Carter, who can play mildly eccentric period roles standing on her head, is perfectly cast as Dina, conveying an independent spirit even when locked in a strenuous bout of love-making with her vis-a-vis. However, it’s Williams’ performance which grows throughout the movie, moving from serene socialite to quietly embittered elder sister with impressive control and faded glamour. “She always meant to ruin my life — and now she has,” says Madeleine, after learning of Dina’s affair.
Bettany, who made his mark as the psychotic young thug in “Gangster No. 1,” is surprisingly effective as the object of the two women’s desire, both as lover and husband. Reined in, and in the latter scenes quietly purposeful, Bettany handles the well-tooled dialogue on a par with his two co-stars. As the sisters’ mom, Eleanor Bron contribs equally restrained support.
Period look is natural and convincing on an evident budget, and Nicholas Hooper’s chamber score adds some warmth, but the stop-start nature of the flashbacked story and O’Sullivan’s merely solid direction militates against much sustained emotional impact. Last act is rather drawn out.