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Caution, Soft Shoulder: Helena Bonham Carter comforts Paul Bettany in 'The Heart of Me.'

Title: Sister Act

The God of Adultery demands blood and middle-class sacrifice in 'The Heart of Me'

By Richard von Busack

WITH THE SLOW deliberation of a tea trolley creaking across a cafe, The Heart of Me unfolds its antique crisis. A married man is torn between his wife and her sister: "One's own sister--does seem a little ... out of the ordinary," murmurs the injured wife. Response to this kind of British restraint may range from heartbreak to up-sleeve laughter. It may be the vogue for Far From Heaven that induced director Thaddeus O'Sullivan to rediscover the lost country of David Lean. This drama of middle-class sacrifice is based on the 1953 novel The Echoing Grove, by the pioneering feminist writer Rosamond Lehmann.

Rickie (Paul Bettany) commences a romance with his wife's sister in mid-1930s London. With the decency of a hard-working father--and with a Jehovah's Witnesses' own store of credulousness--Ricky is played like a shuttlecock between these two demanding women. His wife is Madeleine (Olivia Williams), proper but chilled mother of his child. With Madeleine's sister, the artsy Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter), Rickie dallies, flies kites and reads significant passages of William Blake. Dinah decides to keep Ricky's love child (he doesn't get a vote), but a bloody miscarriage ensues. The errant husband and sister set up a love nest of an artist's loft. Then comes an internal illness of some sort, obviously the work of a vicious conscience, punishing its master. Fate (in the form of the two women's scheming mother, Eleanor Bron) steps in to do the final trimming of the husband's goose. A later sequence in postwar London shows us how the chips fell.

Let's just say thank God for Bonham Carter. There are some actors who go so far out on a limb, they never make it back. The question is, should they bother to try? Bonham Carter's memorable craziness in Fight Club and Planet of the Apes (Carter, a monkey Dietrich flirting through some torn fabric, is as good as sex in the mainstream cinema got in 2001). Playing this Bohemian woman who falls hopelessly in love, Bonham Carter does it all without making it overdone. Slinking around and raging, she's sultry, with eyebrows as steely as Joan Crawford's. (Vivid use of mascara marks her and separated-at-birth twin Johnny Depp; let's team them up in a remake of Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde).

No one likes to play a ditched woman. Williams is less a counterweight on the drama than a plain drag. Bettany has Leslie Howard's forehead and delicacy--and just as much overpowering mojo in the love scenes. These love scenes--graphic considering the film's cold surface--are like the child-birth scene and William's later tantrums in all their messiness. They're modern "updated" touches that intrude in one of those vintage film plots in which the God of Adultery demands a blood sacrifice. Bron certainly understands the essential nature of the game, at least. Remember Bron as the leading lady in the Beatles' Help and the original Bedazzled? Here she is, silver-haired, sleek as Cher and busily working misfortune. It's a pleasure to see her perform some British sadism of the old school.

The Heart of Me (R; 96 min.), directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan, written by Lucinda Coxon, based on the novel by Rosamond Lehmann, photographed by Gyula Pados and starring Helena Bonham Carter, Paul Bettany and Olivia Williams, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the June 26-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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