Under Heaven

A modern reworking of Henry James' novel "The Wings of the Dove," Meg Richman's feature directorial debut is an unexciting romantic melodrama centering on a working-class couple who manipulate a rich woman dying of cancer.

A modern reworking of Henry James’ novel “The Wings of the Dove,” Meg Richman’s feature directorial debut is an unexciting romantic melodrama centering on a working-class couple who manipulate a rich woman dying of cancer. Marred by an obvious narrative, shallow psychological motivations and pat ending, the only chance for “Under Heaven” to connect with its targeted female audience is through the accomplished acting of the leads, particularly Joely Richardson. Since Iain Softley’s highly acclaimed version of “Wings” is in current release, Banner Entertainment should wait to distribute this pic, for the inevitable comparisons are not likely to favor Richman’s adaptation.

Set in contemporary Seattle, story begins with Cynthia (Molly Parker) and Buck (Aden Young), a couple of young musicians struggling to make a living in a tough milieu. Strong-willed and ambitious, Cynthia is determined not to repeat the mistake of her mother (Krisha Fairchild), who got married young to the wrong guy because that was her only option. When Cynthia realizes that Buck is a loser who can’t shake his drug addiction, she breaks up with him.

Answering an ad for a live-in caretaker, Cynthia finds herself in the home of Eleanor Dunston (Richardson), a rich, terminally ill woman who’s well aware that she has only a few months to live. Despite the fact that the two women come from opposites ends of the economic spectrum, gradually a genuine friendship evolves, though Cynthia can’t conceal her jealousy of Eleanor’s luxurious life in a large, magnificent estate.

Things change when Cynthia accidentally runs into old beau Buck and realizes that she’s still in love with him. When Buck claims that he has stopped drinking and doing drugs, Cynthia brings him to Eleanor’s house and introduces him as her half-brother. For a while, the triangle maintains an idyllic facade, with Cynthia tending to Eleanor’s needs, Buck working as a gardener — and the young couple meeting for secret latenight sessions in which they make love behind closed doors.

When Cynthia notices Eleanor’s physical attraction to Buck, she comes up with a manipulative scheme that promises to solve all their problems. At first, Buck is reluctant to court Eleanor, but after a while no encouragement is needed. The result is an untenable menage a trois, rife with desire, envy and accusations of betrayal.

Richman effectively creates some suspense in the first reel, but once Buck begins a relationship with Eleanor, the melodrama becomes pedestrian and obvious; at almost every turn, the protagonists spell out the motivation for their acts. Deviating from James’ great and complex novel, in which emotional ambiguity and moral dilemmas prevail up to the end, Richman’s script is too simplistic. Its incidental humor is not enough to make the yarn engaging.

Since most of the plot takes place within the confines of the big house, the film becomes progressively static, even tedious. Pic’s resolution belongs to a fairy tale, but not to a story inspired by James.

That said, the central couple deserve high praise for endowing their unevenly scripted roles with verve, in Parker’s case, and physical charm, in Young’s. The graceful Richardson, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, delivers an enchanting performance as a young, still-beautiful woman, who consciously and wholeheartedly grabs her last chance at love and happiness.

Tech credits are modest, befitting the production’s intimate scale, with particularly smooth and handsome lensing from Claudio Rocha.

Under Heaven

  • Production: A Banner Entertainment release. Produced by Robin Schorr, Brian Swardstrom, Mickey Liddell. Co-producer, Paddy Cullen. Directed, written by Meg Richman.
  • With: Eleanor - Joely Richardson Buck - Aden Young Cynthia - Molly Parker John - Kevin Phillip Cynthia's Mother - Krisha Fairchild Mrs. Fletcher - Marjorie Nelson Camera (Foto-Kem color), Claudio Rocha; editor, Deborah Zeitman; music, Marc Olsen; production design, Sharon Lomofsky; set decoration, Chris Karges; costume design, Ron Leamon; sound (Dolby), Doug Tourtelot; assistant director, John Nelson; casting, Laurel Smith. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 19, 1998. Running time: 112 MIN.