Movie Magazine International

Under Heaven

USA - 1998

Movie Review By Andrea Chase

So many of life's heartaches can be traced back to these famous words, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." So runs the plot of "Under Heaven," a story inspired by, but definitely distinct from the Henry James novel, "The Wings of the Dove."

Writer/Director Meg Richman takes James' book and uses it as a jumping off point. She gives the characters a new time, the present, and place, Seattle, and a fresh spin, looking at the contemporary class system, and how basically decent people can still be twisted by desperate poverty.

Specifically, Cynthia and Buck who've hit bottom. Fortunately, Buck has a talent for shoplifting or they'd starve. Unfortunately, he has weakness for controlled substances. Broke and without prospects, Cynthia leaves to take a job as live-in companion for Eleanor, a wealthy, charming woman with no family, distant friends and only months to live.

A chance meeting with Buck, now homeless, moves Cynthia. She arranges for him to take a job as Eleanor's gardener, only they tell her that he's Cynthia's half-brother, rather than the ex-boyfriend she's been dissing. Then, in a move without premeditation, and yet the obvious, natural order of things, a plan dawns on Cynthia. Buck will romance Eleanor, marry her, and, when she dies, inherit everything. A good plan, except that emotions are so unpredictable. Buck really falls for the Eleanor. And Cynthia is torn. It's her plan, and what's more, Eleanor, of whom she's grown genuinely fond, is radiantly happy.

The reason "Under Heaven" works so well, is that motives are rarely cut and dried. Why, for example, does Eleanor fall for Buck? True love or a last chance for romance before the big sleep? Either rings true, and both might be the case. Add wonderful performances. Molly Parker is composed, self-assured, and though displaying an iron resolve, still shows Cynthia's generous heart. Joely Richardson is warm but never syrupy as the brave, resigned Eleanor. And Aden Young is sweet as the aimless Buck. You understand the allowances both women make for him.

In the end, each character in this eloquently low-key, emotionally direct film discovers what really matters. And none could have foreseen the changes it causes.

© 1998 - Andrea Chase - Air Date: 7/1/98

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