Rarely has a romantic triangle seemed as square as it does in The Heart of Me, Thaddeus O'Sullivan's adaptation of a 1953 novel by Rosamond Lehmann. Rumor has it that Lehmann based the book on her own affair with Cecil Day Lewis, father of Daniel and one of England's former poet laureates. If so, I sure hope the real-life version was a lot more engrossing than the reel-life version, where Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams behave decorously while sinking their teeth into one another's flesh. That's the British way, of course ' stiff upper lip and all that, what. But there doesn't seem to be a lot going on behind those stiff upper lips in this lackluster period drama set in London during the '30s and '40s.
You'd think that having an affair with your sister's husband would give a movie a certain charge. Here, it provides an occasion for the following line, delivered with aristocratic hauteur by the wife in question: "One's own sister. It does seem a little...out of the ordinary." Indeed, it does, and the dark cavern of sibling rivalry is where O'Sullivan and scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon should have gone in search of their story. But trumping her sister by humping her sister's husband does not appear to be what Carter's Dinah has in mind. She simply falls in love with the guy, who's treated like part of the furniture by his social-butterfly wife. Drawn to Dinah's bohemian, social-pariah charm, Rickie gladly returns the favor.
Well, not that gladly. Pain beats out passion as the forbidden lovers try to get their affair off the ground, to the point where you wonder why they're bothering. Then the wife finds out about them. "I knew, didn't I?" she says to her husband, who, slipping into blame-the-victim mode, replies, "Well, then why didn't you do something to stop it?" The movie itself seems to blame the wife for being so determined to keep up appearances that she fails to notice her husband has "needs." But by making her such a cold-blooded shrew (a personality type at which Williams excels), the filmmakers have stacked the deck in Dinah's favor. We're not as torn as we should be between fidelity and temptation, duty and booty.
In get-ups that the Bride of Frankenstein wouldn't be caught dead in, Carter doesn't exactly make the case for booty. But, as usual, she's enjoyable to watch, broadcasting on a frequency all her own. Williams and Bettany are enjoyable too, despite having to put over such scintillating dialogue as (she) "There you are" followed by (he) "Here I am." And there we are, watching the paint peel. If you happen to need your "Masterpiece Theatre" fix and the telly just went on the blink, you might want to slog through The Heart of Me, which is smothering in good taste. Of course, as Charlie the Tuna used to argue, you don't have to have good taste to taste good. In fact, it often has the opposite effect.