Look at the credits for "Hearts in Atlantis." A nostalgic drama starring
Anthony Hopkins, with a screenplay by William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid") based on a novel by Stephen King and directed by
Scott Hicks, the man who brought us "Shine." How can you go wrong with a
roster like that?
Somehow, they found a way.
I should make it clear up front that there are elements of "Hearts in
Atlantis" that work very well. The locations are skillfully chosen -
this is a movie with a wonderfully specific sense of place. The
cinematography by the late Piotr Sobocinski is simply gorgeous. Anthony
Hopkins gives a sad, wistful, understated performance and establishes a
fine rapport with young actor Anton Yelchin. There are several memorable
scenes, particularly a Three-Card Monty segment and a first kiss on a
But the film doesn't work. After leaving the press screening with only a
vague notion that something about the production was wrong, I made a
point to see the movie again at a sneak preview over the weekend, hoping
to pin down the exact source of my discontent. Basically, it boils down
to this: "Hearts in Atlantis" purports to show the incalculable impact a
mentor can have on a child, but offers a contradictory message through
its depiction of the adult version of that child.
As in the far superior "Stand By Me," the film opens with a man dealing
with the death of a childhood friend. Photographer Bobby Garfield (David
Morse) returns to a small Connecticut town for the funeral of his best
pal, Sully, only to learn that Carol, his first love, has also passed
A side note: In the book on which the film is based, Carol did not die.
Reportedly, director Hicks was jarred by the final scene in "Billy
Elliot," which abruptly switched to an adult version of the young star
of the movie. Rather than risk upsetting viewers by presenting an adult
version of Carol, Hicks opted to kill her instead. Thanks, Scott.
In "Stand By Me," the adult revisits his childhood through his writing,
and in the closing scenes, shows that he grew from the experiences. In
"Hearts in Atlantis," the adult Bobby remembers his childhood while
standing in the ruins of his old home, looking morose (and nobody is
better at looking morose than David Morse). When the flashback ends and
the camera returns to him, Bobby simply continues looking morose. If he
gained anything from his mentor, or Carol, or anybody, there is no
evidence of it onscreen. Where "Stand By Me" overflows with life and
growth, "Hearts in Atlantis" traffics in death and stagnancy.
Back in 1962 (cue the overplayed oldies), 11-year-old Bobby (Yelchin)
lives with his widowed mother Elizabeth (Hope Davis, giving a needlessly
shrill performance). The boy often slips away to play with his closest
friends, Sully (Will Rothhaar) and Carol (Mika Boorem), while dodging a
local bully. Almost every day, Bobby gazes through the toy store window
at the bicycle of his dreams. Unfortunately, Mom can't afford to buy him
the bike, although she somehow manages to keep a fresh supply of new
Life becomes more interesting when Mom takes in a boarder, an elderly
gent named Ted Brautigan (Hopkins). Elizabeth views Ted with suspicion,
but welcomes his money, while Bobby finds the old man fascinating. It
seems that Ted is possessed of a gift and must hide from the "low men"
that would spirit him away because of his gift. He hires Bobby - for a
dollar a week! - to read to him and keep an eye out for his pursuers.
Ted becomes a mentor to Bobby: a reassuring presence and occasional
protector to the boy and his friends. It is here where "Hearts in
Atlantis" lives up to its promise. Although a few scenes fall flat,
particularly a face-off between Ted and the bully, the film captures the
elusive magic that nostalgic pieces shoot for, with just the right
balance of bitter and sweet. Hopkins interacts warmly with the kids, and
young Anton Yelchin and Mika Boorem are delightful together. All too
soon, though, the story gives way to melodrama without resonance,
leading to the return of David Morse for the dour wrap-up.
Because of the acting, cinematography and charming middle section, I'm
glad I saw "Hearts in Atlantis." Still, it is amazing that a group of
talents like this was only able to come up with one third of a great
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott