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Hearts in Atlantis
by J. Robert Parks

We choose the movies we see for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, we're in the mood for something romantic or action-packed or frightening. Other times, the film stars an actor we're especially fond of or it's directed by someone we respect. In still other cases, something about the preview or commercial catches our eye and makes us want to go.

Last week, I went to see Hearts in Atlantis. The gentleman seated next to me had no idea what the movie was about, but he liked Anthony Hopkins and that was enough for him. The woman on my right had read the Stephen King novel and wanted to see how it translated to the big screen. Others just wanted a nostalgic feel-good movie to help distract them from the events of the last two weeks. Me? I was there because I had to review it.

Admittedly, that's not the best motivation when you sit down in a darkened theater. But I had the same circumstances when I saw Hardball last week, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Would magic strike twice in two weeks?

Hearts in Atlantis begins with middle-aged photographer Bobby Garfield (played as an adult by David Morse, Proof of Life) receiving word that an old childhood acquaintance has passed on. At the funeral, he hears that another old friend has also died. This provokes a flashback which makes up the core of the film.

Set in the idyllic summer of 1960, Bobby (played as a child by Anton Yelchin) is hanging out with good friends Carol (Mika Boorem) and Sully (Will Rothhaar) when a strange man rolls into town. Carrying his belongings in paper bags and suitcases, Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) moves into the apartment above Bobby and his mom's.

Bobby's mom, Liz, is initially skeptical of Ted, and she doesn't feel any better when Ted offers Bobby a dollar a week to read him the paper. Why is an older man taking such an interest in her son? Bobby doesn't mind, particularly since that money will help him buy the bike he's always wanted.

It turns out that Ted does have an ulterior motive in befriending Bobby, but not the one Liz fears. Rather, he has a special ability to read people's minds, and sinister government forces are trying to capture him for their own nefarious purposes. Ted hopes that Bobby will help keep a lookout for these "low men."

As the summer goes on, Ted and Bobby's friendship grows, and Bobby's friendship with Carol turns into something new. But of course, idyll can last only so long, and soon the appearance of a bully and the inevitable "low men" casts a pall over the summer.

Anthony Hopkins is stellar as always. He gives a nicely measured performance--rarely descending into the nostalgia that threatens to overwhelm the picture at various moments. Hope Davis does the best she can with a part that's far from flattering (Liz is completely self-absorbed). I'm sure her reasoning for taking the role was to bust out of the nice-girl-next-door roles she's usually offered (Mumford, Next Stop Wonderland). This one is so flat, however, that there's not much for her to work with.

There's a lot for the child actors to do and, unfortunately, they're not up to the task. Anton Yelchin (Along Came a Spider), as Bobby, is fine when he just has to act like a kid. But when the film gets emotional or intense, as it often does, his quivering lip and hang-dog expression feel phony. There's a particularly awful moment--when he's saying good-bye to Ted--that made me want to rush for the doors.

Mika Boorem ("Ally McBeal"), as Carol, doesn't have as much to do. Mostly, she just has to appear radiant--the embodiment of every adult male's memory of his first crush. With director Scott Hicks's soft-focus lighting and Boorem's hair full of blonde waves, that's not terribly difficult. But when she has to communicate something other than beauty, she's not effective. 

The commercials for Hearts in Atlantis have reminded us that Hicks made his breakthrough in 1996's Shine. What they fail to mention is that he was also responsible for 1999's Snow Falling on Cedars, which is a much more relevant comparison. That movie, too, relied on nostalgia, beautiful pictures, and reminiscing about first love to draw its audience in. And like Hearts in Atlantis, there were a lot of plot threads that were never adequately resolved.

Screenwriter William Goldman, who's won Academy Awards for All the President's Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, had the unenviable task of distilling King's novel to a two-hour film. His technique of focusing on one summer almost succeeds, but there are still too many issues left dangling (what happens to Ted, what happens to Carol, how do Bobby and his mom reconcile) when the end credits roll.

For what it's worth, everyone around me seemed to think Hearts in Atlantis was a worthwhile way to spend an evening, though no one was ready to rush out and tell all their friends. I, on the other hand, have to tell all of you that it was worth merely . . . 

J. Robert Parks 9/26/2001

People often say that a film "moved" them. 

That can mean several things. It might mean they cried. It might mean they were sobered. Perhaps the film dealt with emotional issues. 

Once in a while, though, they actually mean they were "moved"... from point A to point B. Something in their head or their heart changed. They went in to the theater and then came out standing in a different place, seeing things a very different way. THAT is what art can do. But, alas, movies prefer to tell us what we already know, sell us what we want to buy; they make us emotional to not good effect. Not many people are comfortable with being "moved". We defend our comfort, like Bilbo Baggins in his hobbit hole. Hopefully, we learn over time, like Bilbo did, that there is value in adventure, in being challenged, in wrestling with uncomfortable monsters until we become wiser and better people. 

Hearts in Atlantis, by the look of the previews, convinced me it was going to try and make me emotional. But Director Scott Hicks, screenwriter William Goldman, cinematographer Piotr Sobocinski, and composer Mychael Danna use craftsmanship and restraint to craft Hearts in Atlantis into a memorable film. It probably made most in the audience emotional, but is good enough to even "move" some people, as it did me, from point A to point B. 

The film is based on a Stephen King short story. King is not a great writer; his prose is streamlined for easy reading, the farthest thing from poetry. But his *ideas* are often intriguing, even brilliant. His short stories often house environments and characters that can provoke great filmmakers to their best work. Think of Stand By Me or The Shawshank Redemption, two strong films that came from King short stories. Add Hearts in Atlantis to the list. 

David Morse plays Robert Garfield, who begins the picture by returning to his old home to discover it besieged by the wild earth, ivy and weeds conquering the front porch. Right away it's clear - this is going to be a trip down memory lane. Morse, a consummate actor whose greatest gifts are a deeply lined emotive face and a deep voice subtle with emotion, makes Bobby a believable photographer, looking patiently and carefully at everything. When he learns that some people very important to him are gone forever, the blow is devastating, even though we see only the slightest evidence in his expression that the reality has even registered. 

The bad news provokes Garfield to think back to his youth. He remembers a a troubling adventure that took place at the edge of adolescence, in the summer of 1960, when he was just beginning to have feelings for a girl, the natural world was a paradise playground, and his biggest dream was as simple as a shiny new bicycle. Newcomer Anton Yelchin gives a winning performance as young Bobby.  Looking like a young Frodo Baggins, he gives Bobby a believable innocence and a tough, hardy heart that rises courageously to some rather daunting challenges. 

Bobby's widowed mother Elizabeth, on the other hand, is hard-working and thrifty, at least around Bobby. Hope Davis is, as always, excellent in this role. She makes Elizabeth selfish, but not evil; we can see what has made her hard and neurotic. Elizabeth's desire for happiness and success leads her to dangerous compromises. Distrusting his mother and lonely, Bobby is likely to look elsewhere for parental nourishment. 

And he does, when an elderly gentleman moves into the upper part of the house. Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), the new neighbor, doesn't say much about his past. He likes to sit and smoke and read. His eyes aren't much good, so he asks Bobby to start reading the papers to him. While mother is suspicious of Ted's motives, Bobby senses something like a father in Ted's wise and kindly demeanor. The two become fast friends, and Bobby begins to suspect that there is something truly wonderful about Ted... a talent that also has him on the run from some dangerous and powerful men. 

There are several Tolkien echoes here, including the dark riders creeping ever closer, and Brautigan's Gandalf-like presence. Brautigan is being pursued by shady characters he calls "the low men". We never see their faces, they wear dark clothes and hats, they're phantoms. Who are they? What has he done? And what are the "spells" that come over him, dropping him abruptly into a trance? 

Hopkins gives Brautigan a weighty ponderous presence, very similar (almost too similar) to his work as C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands - another character who lived with one foot in this world and one in another. But his soft affection, his calmness even in the face of danger, effectively prevent what was a real challenge for this film...avoiding any thought of Hannibal Lecter. 

The director allows just enough menace to darken the corners of the story, keeping his emphasis on the rewards of honesty, innocence, and courage, so that we want to protect these people when doom closes in. His restraint is admirable and rewarding. He works with Sobocinski's camera to give us as much information through visuals as he can. In one breathtaking turn of the camera, we are able to see into five rooms of the house and get a full, informative picture of Bobby's daily life. Goldman's dialogue is lean and productive, giving us just what we need (although sometimes he gives the children lines that sound more grownup than is natural.) On only a couple of occasions does the film stray into sentimentality, and when it does it is mostly the fault of the soundtrack. 

Many timeless themes are woven through the dialogue and imagery. The imminence of death, and thus the priceless value of each moment in each other's company. The value of "seizing the day"...but cautiously...in your youth. The importance of telling the truth. The importance of trusting one's elders. And the powerful impact that an adult's kindness can have on a child in a dangerous world. 

A friend of mine has said that he believes the world slowly began to darken as children were taught not to talk to strangers. Yes, the world is full of risks, but we have grown up in fear of each other. It is fear that makes Elizabeth hate Brautigan, and courage that forms a strong bond between Brautigan and the boy. That courage, armed with discernment, will help Bobby later in life. 

As Brautigan acts as a volunteer mentor to Bobby, he draws him toward all of the right things. Right away, he introduces him to the great writers: "Give a writer an hour to hook you and if he doesn't, move on and try someone else." If he were merely preaching at the boy, it wouldn't stick. But because he has a personal relationship with the kid, discussing sports, adventure, and his own dark secrets, the boy realizes that literature must indeed be valuable if it is such an important resource to this powerful and magical man. 

Another excellent decision Hicks makes is to keep us out of Brautigan's head. While he does have certain powers of perception, there are no jarring special-effects representing his psychic episodes, no portrayals of his visions shown in skewed black-and-white handheld camera. Thank goodness. We are drawn to Brautigan because he remains as mysterious to us as he does to Bobby. 

But the most arresting thing of all about Hearts in Atlantis is the cinematography. Sobocinski is a miracle worker. (Or "was"... he died this year.) He catches morning sunlight as it pours through a window, strikes a glass table top, and refracts into the lens in a dazzling supernova explosion, like a tear in the fabric of time and space. A carnival, one of the most overused big screen environments, is portrayed with such beauty and magic that it is as though we've never seen one before. Kitchens gleam and sparkle with silver. Living rooms and bedrooms are dark and deep with hard wood and craftsmanship. A railroad becomes an enchanting pathway. And downtown at night becomes a perilous labyrinth lurking with people who are behaving like beasts; but the brave soul who ventures there might find valuable revelation. Somtimes these things are slightly exaggerated, but don't we all remember some things more vividly with time? These are Garfield's cherished memories; we can forgive a little gloss. 

Another welcome visual miracle: cigarette smoke. How long has it been since a picture celebrated the beauty of smoke? In our righteous desire to communicate to the world the dangers of cigarettes (this film does that too, getting in a few jabs about the deadliness of the habit), we have made it politically incorrect to recognize the beauty of a tendril of smoke curling and dissipating into the air. Brautigan's smoking habit makes sense, since his abstract, secret anxieties are burdening him and carving lines in his face. When he sits lost in thought, wreathed in wisping clouds, he's as temporal as the smoke, his wisdom as likely to gather for a moment of clarity and blow away on the wind. 

On the surface, Hearts in Atlantis is a simple and sweet story. Look closer, and you'll find wonders. How many recent films have demonstrated the rewards of respecting our elders? How many have been nostalgic for innocence and virtue, and yet not fallen victim to saccharine sentimentality? And, perhaps most important of all, how many are merely beautiful to look at?  If good Cinematographers are "panning for gold" with their camera lens, Sobocinski has put his pan in the river and come back with a fortune. 

Jeffrey Overstreet 9/20/2001


 
 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.   He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com
 
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