What is it about the word "heart"? Constantly shoved into film titles, it has all the oomph of "Europe" or "fish fingers" and generally makes less sense. This week, two British films get lumbered. Nice work, team.
The Heart of Me, inspired by Rosamund Lehmann's anguished classic The Echoing Grove, is a costume drama that wants to be more than the sum of its wardrobe. We weave in and out of three points of view. The respectable Madeleine (Olivia Williams) is married to the elegant, sensitive Rickie (Paul Bettany); her tomboyish daddy's-girl sister, Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter), is in love with him. He loves her back but, thanks to a series of disasters and his own passivity, can't seem to rip himself away from the family home.
Lehmann pays equal, loving attention to all her characters; Thaddeus O'Sullivan tries to, but keeps weighting things in favour of Dinah. The favouritism is troubling, as it was in Me Without You, another Brit flick about rivalrous women (wish-fulfilment fuels cinema, but it needs to be better disguised than this). The film works when it lets its two leads slip out of the romantic net (Bonham Carter hunched and mewling at the memory of a lost child; Bettany snarling at his shocked wife). Most of the time the pair are kept safely inside. Passionate (she flies kites), impetuous (he buys inscribed jewellery), they deserve each other, they really do.
The Midlands comedy Heartlands comes with lots of big names attached. Maybe too many. It's a Miramax film, executive-produced by Michael Winterbottom and Duncan Kenworthy, directed by Damien O'Donnell, of East is East fame. And what it feels like is a 10-minute short that's been yanked every which way but loose. Colin (Michael Sheen) is a sweet-natured, darts-playing shopkeeper, whose world is shattered by the discovery that his wife has been sleeping with another man. The canoodling pair drive off to Blackpool for a darts competition, and Colin, after a chat with his friend Zippy (Paul Shane), sets off after them. Wouldn't you know, it's a voyage of self-discovery.
The cinematography, by Alwin Kuchler, is gulp-inducing (the Peak District has never looked so lush and shining); the folk songs, from Kate Rusby, are moving. And at least the finale doesn't involve Colin winning the darts competition, but in every other way this fits the Full Monty, Brassed Off, Northern-losers-triumph-over-something-or-other template. It's like spending a week with Sesame Street's Big Bird. Bizarre, but not bizarre enough.
In Pure, a 10-year-old boy, Paul (Harry Eden), tries to get his widowed mum (Molly Parker) off heroin, hindered by the machinations of her cruel dealer, and helped by a kindly policeman. Gillies MacKinnon is a wizard with child actors. In 1998's Hideous Kinky, we watched another kid struggle to make sense of her unreliable ma; Bella Riza's soft, tense face was the glue of that film, and so Eden's is the glue of this.
There are some explosively forlorn, Mouchette-like moments, as when Paul hangs out with Keira Knightley's Louise, a tough young junkie who shows him what it's like to get high. It's also a novel idea to suggest that to save heroin users you need to let the drug crawl under your own skin. But MacKinnon's too timid to explore this in any depth. Pure is basically a morality tale, which sends out the Harry Potter-ish message that pluck, rather than luck, saves the day. (Oh yes, and a grandpa straight out of a Roald Dahl book comes in handy, too.)
Poor Parker has nothing to do. In her debut, Kissed, she got to make love to corpses. We understood that obsession. Her heroin habit, by contrast, seems nothing that a new hairdo and a slash of lipstick won't fix.
The spy thriller Shiri arrives waving box-office receipts – it is the most successful Korean film ever – and the acclaim is justified. Two South Korean special agents, Ryu (Han Suk-Kyu) and Lee (Son Kang-ho), are thrown into a panic when revolutionaries from the North start stealing weapons of mass destruction. One sniper, Hee, is particularly problematic – she's always a step ahead of the buddies. Who's the leak, and how can it be stopped? Panes of glass explode, clocks take for ever to countdown, but the script is knotty enough to keep you involved. Ryu's relationship with his wife, Hyun (Kim Yoon-Jin), is as tender and strange as any of the affairs in Chungking Express. And you'll never again look at an aquarium in quite the same way.
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Pynchon: a Journey into the Mind of [P] is an odd little ball, basically a documentary, full of librarians and booksellers and "webmasters" holding forth on the American novelist who made Paranoia Studies legit. His theories are fascinating, but if his ex-girlfriend is anything to go by, he had terrible taste in people. She and her husband (whom she left for Pynchon, and then returned to) blaze with self-importance, but secrete frustration and disappointment from every pore. A newspaper man finally tracked down the elusive Pynchon in Nineties New York, and the sight of his goofy, stricken face isn't much more uplifting. You realise you've got sucked up in the myth – he's a man after all, how disappointing. Luckily, the cult group The Residents are on hand, covering songs by groups such as The Beach Boys and mangling them beautifully. Will Pynchon show up at the ICA screenings? They can't arrest us for hoping.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was made in 1986 and, on its much-contested release, became a byword for low-key horror. This is the uncut, 90-minute version, and it sure is harrowing. It's not so much Henry's gory crimes that bring you down; it's his excuse for a social life, his relationship with his fellow ex-con Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis's sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold). Just as Tobe Hooper did in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, John McNaughton presents poverty with zero gloss but never fobs us off with grotesques. Otis's grossness is balanced by Henry's spartan control. Becky, meanwhile, is a careless mom and sexually gamey, but marginally less insane. She's at a dead end in her life and you can see why Henry seems like a way out. You come to love her pinched, hopeful expression – and dread it, too.
Time for another Visconti reissue. Long and sprawling, The Leopard has its moments, but not many. Its veneration for Burt Lancaster's Sicilian duke is oppressive – the man's a wind-bag and, when in full flow, mixes his metaphors horribly, while Alain Delon, as his mercurial nephew, Tancredi, is one big smirk. As for the landscape, it just calls out: "Come to Sicily!" Luckily, Claudia Cardinale, as Tancredi's nouveau riche fiancée, juices things up. She acts like a whore, knowing, permanently aroused, always game for a laugh. A Hollywood film would punish her in some way. Here (though she does have to spend a lot of time looking adoringly at the duke) she triumphs.
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