Based on the book by Stephen King, Hearts in Atlantis is a film so understated and full of emotion that most of the wonderful themes will pass right by you. This subversive film is a little too subversive, and that’s part of its downfall.
Anthony Hopkins plays Ted Brautigan, a mysterious traveler who shacks up in the room above Bobby Garfield’s place. Bobby, a young kid growing up without a dad and living with his painfully self-indulgent mother, yearns for a father figure that he finds in Ted. The two begin to develop a bond and soon we get a startlingly candid look into Bobby’s world, with mere glimpses of Ted’s along the way. The plot doesn’t achieve focus until around the 45 minute mark, not necessarily a bad thing because the drama from that slow first act is first rate and Goldman’s script is sharp. After, and even up to, this point Ted is tragically underdeveloped as are most of the characters. Bobby gets adequate screen time to show his life and what happens in his world, but the rest of the cast, from Bobby’s girlfriend Carol Gerber and most especially John Sully, Bobby’s friend whose funeral begins this flashback film in the first place. These two were very prominent in the book and left hung out to dry in the film.
The novel on which the film is based on is a drab, awful affair after the first two stories, “Low Men In Yellow Coats,” and “Hearts in Atlantis.” The film is based on that first short story and the second has nothing to do with young people and their perfect happiness as the movie claims, only the game of Hearts itself. I found myself completely drawn to that first yarn and Hicks wisely chose to focus on that tale but leaves most of the details that made it extraordinary for reasons that are never explained. He wants to make a film about the coming of age of this boy, but never realizes that a good coming of age film dragged down by a soggy mystery, or a good mystery dragged down by a stagnant coming of age story (take your pick), isn’t a very good way to go about a making a film. Hopkins is adequate in his portrayal of Brautigan but his character never reaches the depths required to make him truly real. He trances out, he’s afraid of some vague people chasing him, he likes root beer. There isn’t much else to say. Bobby almost catches on to the mystery and by the time he does, we get hokey scenes in which he proclaims he will protect the old man and not let the Low Men take him away. Insert groans and cringes here.
That’s not to say it’s all bad, because when the children hit the right notes it’s a wonderful sight to see. The candid moments between Bobby (Anton Yelchin) and Carol (Mika Boorem) are fantastic stuff and give weight to the emotional heartache Bobby experiences later in life once he realizes what happened to Carol without his knowledge. Bobby’s mother, played brilliantly by Hope Davis, is a hedonistic woman who can’t see past her own career opportunities to understand that she has a son to take care of. While the first half of the movie is spot-on excellent, it’s when the climax begins to build, or break down depending on your viewpoint, that the movie runs into trouble. The film can’t balance both Bobby and Ted’s story equally, and the compromise made for both is lame and dogged as it limps to the finish line, ending on a somber note that attempts to be uplifting but fails miserably. I hate to use the word boring, because the movie certainly isn’t, it just needed to find a stride and stick to it. This film does not. Bobby’s story by itself would’ve been an extraordinary movie, focusing on the lives of John, Carol, and himself as he learns about love, friendship, and the art of growing up. Ted’s tale independently would’ve taken the moviegoer on a journey of fear and abandonment, on loneliness and the power to see and feel things most don’t. The dark, forbidden underworld in which Ted is a part of would’ve made wonderful cinema. But the mixture of the two is like a bad seventh grade science experiment, with too much schmaltz and not enough brutal honesty. Kudos for the attempt, but for those looking for a dramatic King story that fires on all cylinders look for “Stand By Me” or “The Shawshank Redemption.” For those looking for Scott Hicks’s great film, try “Shine.”
VIDEO ^ Piotr Sobocinski’s amazing cinematography, the first film to use the entire 2.35:1 frame effectively in recent memory, is presented gorgeously with a flawless transfer in Anamorphic Widescreen. There are no artifacts, edge enhancement, or color and contrast problems anywhere to be found. This is a beautiful transfer and kudos to Warner, one of the leaders in great presentations on DVD. Unfortunately Sobocinski died after the making of the film, and the last frames commemorate the picture to him. While it’s unfortunate that we lost such a great artist, at least his work is shown with utter clarity and in its widescreen glory. Once you see the detailed setups and camera angles utilized in this picture, you’ll shudder to think how it transferred to VHS Pan and Scan.
AUDIO ^ A subdued film requires a subdued soundtrack, with nothing more than the almost non-existent score coming from all speakers. In this Dolby Digital 5.1 track the surrounds are vacant and the 50’s music, from Sinatra to the doo-wop, vibrates wonderfully through the front soundstage, but never beyond that. Your subwoofer might as well be turned off, but that’s to be expected with such a low-key film.
English and French-Quebec Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are included, as well as English subtitles and/or Closed Captions along with French Subtitles.
EXTRAS ^ Screen-specific Commentary with director Scott Hicks ^ Scott Hicks is no slouch when it comes to commentaries, with his contributions to Criterion’s Laserdisc of “Shine” and Columbia TriStar’s “Snow Falling on Cedars” proving this. His effort here is on par with those tracks, a bit dry with a wiry sense of humor and a very good grip on the story he wanted to tell. The information in here is invaluable to a budding film student with story, themes, and editing choices talked about at length and providing insight that you just don’t find in most commentaries. While he takes a few minutes to get going, give it a shot; you won’t be disappointed.
Interview with Anthony Hopkins ^ This half-hour interview is an absolute pleasure to watch. Anthony, soft spoken and a bit reluctant, slowly opens up with each question asked and soon talks about his experiences with child actors as well as how he became an actor himself. The topics discussed vary greatly and there’s just something about watching a master talk about his work that is truly fascinating. This is the best feature on the disc; don’t miss it.
Finally, a nice Still Gallery is included as well as the misleading Theatrical Trailer (in 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen) trying to sell the film as a thriller and the disc is wrapped up by obligatory Cast and Crew biographies.
OVERALL ^ Don’t let the trailer fool you: Hearts in Atlantis is a wonderfully emotional movie that takes a few wrong turns going into Act 3. The performances are pitch perfect for that first half and the extras on this disc are golden, particularly that Hopkins interview. A beautiful picture for a beautiful movie, this is a fine DVD that begs for more extras. For fans of Stephen King it will fit easily in between “Stand By Me,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “The Green Mile.”
OVERALL (DVD): * * * ½ – 3.5 Stars ^ MOVIE: * * * ½ – 3.5 Stars ^ VIDEO: * * * * * – 5 Stars ^ AUDIO: * * * * – 4 Stars ^ EXTRAS: * * ½ – 2.5 Stars