Does a period drama that's just OK to begin with get any better after you chop up its narrative like Parmesan cheese? Not on the evidence of "The Heart of Me," a middling soap opera that bounces back and forth between the mid-1930s and 1940s, to no real effect beyond mild disorientation.
In the earlier time frame, artistically inclined Brit Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter) can't find a fella, and the ones she does find, she can't keep. Perhaps it's because, despite her bohemian air, she's "mysterious and cold."
"It's what they all discover in the end," sniffs sister Madeline (Olivia Williams), giving voice to a barely sublimated sibling rivalry. A near-miss engagement gets called off at the insistence of Madeline's husband, Ricky Masters (Paul Bettany), ostensibly because Dinah can do better. But Ricky has other motives. Soon, he's banging his sister-in-law at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, while his in-denial wife makes polite merry elsewhere.
The affair leaves Dinah pregnant, and suddenly -- whoosh! -- we're off to 1946, where a conciliatory Dinah is trying to make peace with a brittle Madeline after years of apparent estrangement. Their subdued conversation teases us with hints of the births, deaths, accidents and other momentous occurrences that have transpired in the interim -- events that are then shown in flashback. And so it goes, back and forth, over and over again, each temporal leap accompanied by another set of overheated tragedies.
The story is structured to support a William Blake quote about forgiveness, and therein hangs another problem: You don't want to forgive these people. Ricky is an unreconstructed cad, and the dotty Dinah loses our sympathies as soon she learns of her illicit pregnancy, only to announce it without irony as "the most fantastic surprise." Uh-huh. The only character who exhibits any kind of repentance is Madeline, and she's guilty of no sin beyond being really, really British.
Three stars, for a trio of quality lead performances that survive the relentless card-shuffling of the plot -- and because Ricky Masters is just a great name any way you slice it.
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