Hearts in Atlantis: Scott (Shine) Hicks Misfire, Coming of Age Tale, Starring Anthony Hopkins

What has happened to the vitality of prodigious Aussie director, Scott Hicks, so clearly evident in his debut, the 1996 Oscar-winning Shine?

Hearts in Atlantis is not as deliberately paced and decorously crafty as Snow Falling on Cedars, a literary adaptation that proved to be a sophomore jinx, artistically and commercially.

However, considering that it’s based on Stephen King’s popular novella (actually two stories) and deals with such a universal theme as the end of childhood, Hicks’ third assignment suffers from the same stifling artistic treatment that damaged his previous enterprise. Fortunately, the old adage, “beware of children and animal,” doesn’t apply to Anthony Hopkins, whose versatility seems to have no bounds.

In Hearts in Atlantis, a classic coming-of-age tale that echoes George Stevens’ Western, Shane, Hopkins plays a mysterious stranger, who becomes a surrogate parent to a fatherless boy on the verge of entering adolescence.

Warner’s late fall release, which premiered in Toronto, is not as enjoyable or commercial as Stand By Me, another childhood tale from a King novella, but it should play reasonably well with intelligent, discerning viewers.

Sensitively adapted by Oscar-winning writer William Goldman (who also transferred to the big screen King’s Misery), the narrative assumes the shape of a mythic memory film, in which the friendship with an enigmatic stranger forever changes the way a lonely child perceives and relates to the world. Whether intentionally or not, in structure and visual motifs, Hearts in Atlantis recalls the cult Western, Shane, in which Alan Ladd’s mysterious gunfighter changed the life of a fatherless boy, unforgettably played by Brandon de Wilde. At the end of the new movie, when Hopkins’s Ted Brautigan departs town, viewers can almost hear Bobby crying after him,”Shane, Shane, Come Back.”

Framed by elegiac voice-over narration from a middle-aged photographer named Bobby Garfield (Morse), this nostalgic evocation is set in 1960, when the young Bobby celebrated his eleventh birthday–and the last summer of his childhood. What triggers the plot is the death of a boyhood friend of the mature Bobby, beckoning him back to the town of his upbringing.

As soon as new lodger Ted assumes lodging in the upstairs apartment of Boby’s house, he takes liking to the isolated boy. Claiming that his vision is severely impaired, Ted makes Bobby an irresistible offer: He’ll be paid a daily fee for reading the newspaper to him. In his conversations, Ted, a cultural, well-versed man, makes references to literature, art, philosophy, the kind of which intrigue open-minded boys. However, it soon becomes clear that Ted is covering a murky past, as a result of which he’s now pursued by what he describes as “evil low men.”

Though surrounded by close pals of his age, Sully (Rothhaar) and Carol (Boorem), the first girl he will ever kiss, Bobby lives in an adult world, defined by two vastly different individuals. Liz (Davis), Bobby’s mom, is a bitter woman who over the years has clouded her son’s memory of his long-dead father. In contrast, Ted represents a positive, hopeful, even intellectual outlook. Filling the gap of Bobby’s dead father, Ted offers much needed attention and warm friendship, which help open the boy’s eyes to the big outside world. Camaraderie between Ted and Bobby intensifies, when Liz goes out of town, and the two go out to a local pub, whereupon Bobby discovers that his father might have been an irrepressible gambler, but certainly not the villain his frustrated mother has made him to be.

Ted inspires instant liking from Bobby and just as instant suspicion from Liz, a neglectful, self-absorbed single mother, who’s abused by men, and makes no secret of the fact that her boy represents an obstacle in her ambitious way up. Working in a crummy job, Lis is not a bad woman, just a victim of her boss and other men.

Just like a Western’s gunslinger, Ted literally comes out of nowhere, with a few belongings and shopping bags. At first, he seems to have no history–again like a Western hero–though gradually, scripter Goldman fills in the puzzle of his life. Set in Eisenhower’s America, the tale makes Ted a man possessed with visionary power, a psychic gift, for which he’s now wanted by the government, though it’s not clear whether it’s the FBI, CIA, or another shady organization.

Like other American classics of this genre, Hearts in Atlantis revisits the magical, precise moment that signals the end of childhood–and end of innocence. In Hearts, all the memories of the adult Bobby flood back to those amazing few weeks spent with Ted, whose powerful presence has continued to affect and haunt Bobby for the rest of his life. The saga ends on a satisfying if also overly sentimental note, when the adult Bobby revisits his childhood home, and experiences a chance encounter with Carol’s daughter, which completes the circle of his journey back in time.

Unfortunately, a huge gap prevails between the intimate, small-scale nature of the story, basically a two-character handler, and the luxuriously stuffy artistic apparatus within which it’s contained. Other directors, such as Bob Reiner, who has superbly adapted King novellas to the screen (Stand By Me, Misery), have shown instinctive understanding of the pulpish elements in the novelist’s writing, which is what make them accessible. In contrast, Hicks treats the story reverentially and, what’s worse, accords each scene with the same languorous pacing, which diffuses the intimacy and undermines any possible spontaneity. As a result, even easy scenes to direct, such as Bobby’s experiencing his very first kiss, or Bobby’s fight with some older nasty bullies, lack verve.

If Yelchin is merely effective, though not the best child-actor around for playing Boby, Hopkins rises to the occasion, perceiving the film as a platform for displaying his dominant presence. Hopkins’s musical voice possesses an heroic timbre, matched by few American actors. When he lengthens his vowels, it gives his speech an extra-powerful dimension, though nothings in his performance is over-deliberate or forced.

Hearts in Atlantis is dedicated to Polish cinematographer, Piotr Sobocinski, best known for his Oscar-nominated lensing of Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red, who died at age 43, while on location in Vancouver for Luis Mandoki’s upcoming film, 24 Hours.