Hearts in Atlantis
directed by Scott Hicks
(Castle Rock, 2001)

No one does death, dysfunction and disillusionment better than Stephen King, as fans of The Shawshank Redemption or Stand By Me will readily tell you. Those seeking more evidence need look no further than Hearts in Atlantis.

It begins -- like Stand By Me -- with news of the death of a childhood friend, then proceeds quickly, via flashback, to dysfunction and disillusionment. All Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin) wants for his 11th birthday is his own bicycle, a Black Phantom that inhabits the display window of a nearby store. What he gets is a library card and an excuse: his widowed mother (Hope Davis) can't afford to buy him a bike, she says, because his late father "never met an inside straight he didn't like."

But Bobby is no fool: he can see where the family funds are going -- into his mother's wardrobe. And he suspects it will keep going there as long his mother has hopes of keeping her boss's attentions.

That makes Hearts in Atlantis a kind of coming-of-age film, but a coming-of-age film with a twist. And the twist's name is Ted Brautigan.

Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins) is an older gentleman who takes the apartment upstairs from the Garfields and quickly forms an attachment to Bobby. It's an attachment that worries Bobby's mother, and with good reason.

It seems Mr. Brautigan is more than a little vague about his past: he comes from "up north," where he did "a number of things." And what little he reveals about his present -- that he has psychic powers and is being followed by some "low men" -- he reveals only to Bobby, whose help he enlists in his struggle to maintain his independence.

Along the way, they receive bushels of help, most notably from screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride), who provides a script that says not one word more than it has to, and from cinematographers Allen Daviau (Empire of the Sun) and the late Piotr Sobocinski, whose stunning visual styles fill in all the blanks.

If there is such a thing as "ominosity," Sobocinski and Daviau have found it. For all its sunlit small-town scenes, Hearts in Atlantis has an eerie look and feel to it, best exemplified in the waist-high, brooding shots of the "low men" cruising the neighborhoods in their black sedans.

On top of that, you have an excellent performance by Yelchin and an absolutely mesmerizing characterization by Hopkins. Making a psychic seem real is no easy task; having someone as convincing as Hopkins take the role was a wise move on someone's part. And together, Yelchin and Hopkins achieve the kind of screen chemistry essential to a coming-of-age film; you can't watch them without the sense that the two have developed a powerful and nurturing relationship.

The film's only serious flaw, if it has one, is an ending that's a little too sweet, a little too satisfying. On the way there, however, King more than makes up for the maudlin.

Bringing Stephen King to the screen is a tempting but never easy task, but director Scott Hicks has managed it with amazing visual flair, wit so subtle it almost gets lost and insight that's both enduring and endearing.

How he did it could be Atlantis's greatest mystery of all.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 21 December 2002

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