Under Heaven

Sundance Film Fest (Competition), Jan 19, 1998–A modern reworking of The Wings of the Dove, Henry James' famous novel, Under Heaven, Meg Richman's feature directorial debut, is an unexciting romantic melodrama centering on a working-class couple that manipulates a rich woman dying of cancer.

Marred by an obvious narrative, shallow psychological motivations and pat ending, the only chance for this film to connect with its targeted female audience is through the accomplished acting of the leads, particularly the lovely Joely Richardson. Since Iain Softley's highly acclaimed version of The Wings of the Dove is still in current release, Banner Entertainment should distribute its film as late as possible for the inevitable comparisons are not likely to favor Richman's adaptation.

Set in contemporary Seattle, story begins with Cynthia (Molly Parker) and Buck (Aden Young), a couple of young musicians struggling to make a living in a tough milieu. Strong-willed and ambitious, Cynthia is determined not to repeat the mistake of her mother (Krisha Fairchild), who got married young to the wrong guy, because that was her only option. Hence, when she realizes that Buck is a loser who can't give up his drug addiction, Cynthia decides to break up with him.

Answering an ad for a live-in caretaker, Cynthia finds herself in the house of Eleanor Dunston (Richardson), a rich, terminally-ill woman, highly aware that she has only a few months to live. Despite the fact that the two women come from opposites sides of the spectrum, gradually a genuine friendship evolves, though Cynthia can't conceal her jealousy of Eleanor's luxurious life in a large, magnificent estate.

Things change when Cynthia accidentally runs into old beau Buck and realizes that she's still in love with him. When Buck claims that he has stopped drinking and doing drugs, Cynthia takes him back to Eleanor's house and introduces him as her half brother. For a while, the triangle manages to keep an idyllic facade, with Cynthia tending to Eleanor's needs, Buck working as a gardener–and late-night sessions, in which Cynthia and Buck make passionate love behind closed doors.

When Cynthia notices Eleanor's physical attraction to Buck, she comes up with a manipulative scheme that promises to solve all of their problems. At first, Buck is reluctant to court Eleanor, but, after a while, no encouragement is needed. Human feelings and libidinal instincts have their own way and soon, and result is an untenable mnage a trois, rife with desire, envy and accusations of betrayal.

Richman creates effectively some suspense in the first reel, but once Buck begins a relationship with Eleanor, the melodrama becomes pedestrian and too obvious. At almost every turn, the protagonists spell out the motivation for their acts, leaving little guessing for the audience. Some incidental humor is inserted into the threesome's interactions, but not enough to make the yarn engaging. Deviating from James' great and complex novel, in which emotional ambiguity and moral dilemmas prevail up to the end, Richman's script is too simplistic.

Since most of the plot takes place within the confines of the big house, the film becomes progressively static and even tedious. Pic's resolution, in which Cynthia brings her poor mother and sisters into the house to live with her, belongs to a fairy tale–“you always wanted to be a princess,” mom tells her daughter–but not to a story inspired by James.

That said, the central couple deserves praise for endowing their unevenly scripted roles with verve, in Parker's case, and physical charm, in Young's. The graceful Richardson, who bears striking resemblance to her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, renders an enchanting performance as a young, still beautiful woman, who consciously and wholeheartedly grabs her last chance at love and happiness.

Tech credits are modest, as befit the production's intimate scale, with a particularly smooth lensing from Claudio Rocha.