Found: One Intelligent Movie

In the center of the parched desert we call the current movie year, a refreshing oasis appears in The Heart of Me , an intelligent chamber piece about the complicated relationships in the immaculate drawing rooms of well-heeled Londoners during World War II, adapted from a profound and literate novel by Rosamond Lehmann, one of my favorite British authors. Based on the book The Echoing Grove , which has never been in the same distinguished literary company as Lehmann’s unforgettable Dusty Answer , and suffering from a few casting mistakes of its own, The Heart of Me is not a perfect film. But as an intensely emotional study of two sisters trapped by the social and moral restrictions imposed on them by the manners of the upper class, the weak man they both love and destroy, and the rupture between them, all in a time of upheaval and change that overwhelms their lives, it has real substance.

The setting is London, the years are 1934 to 1946. After the death of their father, two sisters with very different ideologies face an uncertain future. Madeleine (Olivia Williams) is the level-headed, restrained and serenely confident wife and mother, obsessed with manners and appearances. Dinah (Helena Bonham Carter) is the high-strung, eccentric, self-absorbed bohemian who stays on after their father’s funeral in the elegant home of Madeleine and her husband, Rickie (Paul Bettany), on fashionable Montagu Square. They try to set up Dinah with a wealthy suitor, but just when it looks like the wayward sister is ready to surrender and settle for a respectable marriage with an oaf she does not love, just to please Madeleine and their arrogant, controlling mother (Eleanor Bron), fate interrupts. Even before her own willful obstinacy wrecks the engagement, Dinah is surprised by a different kind of intervention. Under the pretext of having a nightcap, her brother-in-law leaves his wife’s bedroom, wakes the sleeping Dinah and demands that she break it off. Rickie, who has always been a timorous and mousy soul, is suddenly transformed into a lusty centaur in the first hammerlock hold of a long-suppressed sexual awakening. For their clandestine meetings, Rickie sets her up in a secret flat, where they while away the afternoons in bed. Madeleine fears for her sister’s reputation, unaware that Dinah has become her husband’s mistress, and Rickie fears discovery. When Dinah becomes pregnant, her care falls under the control of her best friend Bridie, who appears to be in love with Dinah, too. Rickie is seriously injured when his car crashes in a snowstorm on his way to the seaside cottage, where the baby dies in childbirth. Back in Montagu Square, he goes through the motions of family life, but Madeleine eventually receives a letter from Bridie revealing the affair. The grieving Dinah, the furious and humiliated Madeleine, and the debonair but wimpy Rickie seek ways to resolve their differences. But it’s not until the two estranged sisters reunite in 1946 that we see the progression of tragic events through the years in flashbacks. Madeleine and Rickie have lost their son in the war. Madeleine and Dinah have lost Rickie, who was killed in an air raid on his way to a jeweler to pick up a silver bracelet he had engraved for Dinah. The world is no longer the safe and ordered, socially stratified place it was 12 years earlier. Judgment no longer has the same meaning. After a decade of deception and death, all the two sisters have left is each other. Who, in the supreme pain, sacrifice and guilt of survival, has the right to affix blame?

The Heart of Me has a lot of plot, and maybe I’ve revealed too much of it here. But I have scarcely scratched the surface. Like Henry James and Graham Greene, Rosamond Lehmann knew how to describe the simmering passions that lie discreetly below the surface of ordered lives within the context of their times, without forming opinions about their outcome. Divorce and the never-ending disillusionment of love were primary subjects, both of which are treated with unsentimental sophistication and candor here. Although she died in 1990 at age 89, it’s a safe assumption that Ms. Lehmann might have approved of the precision and respect with which screenwriter Lucinda Coxon has transformed the pages of her largely autobiographical novel, published in 1953. Irish director Thaddeus O’Sullivan has also done a nice job of customizing it for the screen, even though some of the actors do not exactly fit my definition of dream casting. For the pivotal role of Rickie, a man who wrecks so many lives in his selfish pursuit of passion and is seemingly the drop-dead date bait for British women everywhere, Paul Bettany is too effete-all red hair and splotchy skin, in that flushed, freckled English schoolboy manner. He’s supposed to be passive and indecisive until he risks everything for love, but I just wondered what either of the women saw in him in the first place. Helena Bonham Carter is too goth for the beautiful and devastatingly alluring Dinah. She seems to have majored in weird. Their nude scenes are as enticing as a plate of Alpo. Meanwhile, Olivia Williams, as the deceived wife, is too lovely and patrician to give either of them a free lift to the nearest tube station. I can think of a dozen casting choices that would have enlivened and enhanced this film more.

But small caveats aside, The Heart of Me is a civilized film about people who are as fascinating for their flaws as for their strengths. For people who long for a return to storytelling, it is admirably considered in its trajectory, and happily devoid of the kind of irritating special effects that are almost always inserted these days to distract you from the fact that, aside from the noise and dazzle, nothing else is going on. In a word, recommended.

High-Flying Soufflé

Nothing works anymore, especially in France, where everyone is constantly on strike and, as any visiting American journalist at the Cannes Film Festival can attest, on nine tries out of 10 to reach the outside world you can’t even get a dial tone. It’s so frustrating it seems surreal. In the amiable new French romantic comedy Jet Lag , writer-director Daniele Thompson takes a jaundiced look at cosmopolitan dysfunction, then optimistically concludes that since nothing is going to improve, you might as well laugh and make the most of it. Like, if you’re stranded in an airport and plagued by flight delays, look around. Cruise the lounge. You might find something you never expected, like love.

On a typical day of French hysteria, two harried Parisians find themselves in the middle of a logistical nightmare at Charles de Gaulle Airport. It’s the first day of the school holidays, the pilots have gone on strike, the computers are down, the flight controllers have canceled every flight, the weather is awful, and stranded passengers are draped over every imaginable chair in the terminal. Into one end of the departure-lounge chaos enters Rose (Juliette Binoche), an arch, garishly made-up beautician with a cheap economy ticket to Mexico City, who is fleeing an abusive boyfriend and hiding behind so much rouge that she looks like a Jell-O salad. Into the opposite end of the terminal comes Felix (Jean Reno), an exhausted frozen-food mogul making a brief layover from New York to Munich to attend a funeral. Neither of them is in the mood for an encounter, but they just can’t seem to get away from each other! After she drops her cell phone down the toilet and has to borrow his, he is tortured by all of her incoming calls. Then her jealous, neurotic boyfriend (the great Sergi López) shows up, punches him in the nose and gets dragged away by the police, threatening revenge. Already on a collision course with fate, things get worse when they are grounded for the night and forced to share the only available room in the airport Hilton. The American remake will undoubtedly star Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. I look forward to avoiding it like a discount ticket to Europe on a crop duster.

But I had a fine time here. Director Thompson and her two A-list stars take a grand holiday from their usual seriousness, exploring all of the possibilities offered by this situation with charm and style. Ms. Binoche, ditzy and delicious in a frivolous role, is a buzz of hair spray, bargain basement perfume and irritating chatter. Mr. Reno, angular and anal-retentive, has dizzy spells, needs sleep and is allergic to everything from her dusting powder to the noxious food she orders from room service. With nothing to lose, they open up about everything that bothers them, overflowing with an honesty so painful that they bounce off each other like birdies in a game of badminton. Two total, strong-willed strangers-miserable, detained, furious and on their way to somewhere else-with nothing in common except a mutually desperate situation and a temperamental cell phone. Naturally, they fall in love.

Ms. Thompson gets so much humor out of the colorful claustrophobia in rain-soaked Roissy-Charles de Gaulle that I felt like I was stranded there myself. The witty screenplay cleverly delineates between two very different personalities who are by turns polite, ready to kill each other, and eager to dispense the kind of maddening advice only strangers would dare to offer. Ms. Binoche and Mr. Reno make a superbly droll and original pair of megastars. Moving deftly from Paris to the Las Brisas resort in Mexico City and back to the French countryside, Jet Lag is in the air at all times, in more ways than one. Bring your passport and get ready to travel. The only thing that lags in this high-flying soufflé is the title.

Must-See Peggy Lee

Cool music from every keyhole in town means it’s time for the annual JVC Jazz Festival. While celebrating the publication of his terrific new, can’t-put-it-down autobiography, Myself Among Others , the talk of the music world, festival director George Wein, is still finding the time to trumpet swinging events that will dominate the Apple from June 15 to 28. This year, my advice is simple: If you can pop your fingers 24/7 for the dozens of concerts that will get your groove back for two solid weeks, go for it. But if you can only spend the time and money for one, follow me in the stampede to Carnegie Hall on Monday, June 23, at 8 p.m. for a star-studded tribute to Norma Deloris Egstrom of Jamestown, N.D., better known as Miss Peggy Lee. In the world of jazz, she was the most famous and beloved white-chick singer in history, so the box-office bonanza that is turning this salute to a legend into the center-spot emerald of this year’s JVC marathon is nothing less than what she deserved. Every musician who has ever been able to hear artistry and perfection beyond the limitations of his own work worshipped at the shrine of Peggy Lee. No wonder this celebration of her life and songs features an astonishing lineup of performers from Broadway, jazz, pop and country that is raising eyebrows and expectations. Producer Richard Barone promises “a musical biography of Peggy Lee’s life” through her own compositions as well as songs written for her, and arrangements by her colleagues, collaborators, friends and fans. Cutting to the chase, George Wein simply adds: “The music will be fabulous and the vocal stylings by some of the world’s greatest singers will make Peggy’s dynamic songs come alive again.”

The jury is still out, but don’t expect the mundane. I don’t want to give away so many secret ingredients that the flavor of the feast will falter, but when was the last time you saw Nancy Sinatra and Deborah Harry sing a medley from Disney’s Lady and the Tramp ? Bea Arthur will take the lid off “Big Spender,” and Jackie Cain will make a rare appearance singing the exquisite Peggy Lee–Marian McPartland ballad “In the Days of Our Love” in a bossa-nova tempo, with Marian herself at the piano. Jane Monheit, Shirley Horn, Maria Muldaur, Petula Clark, Peter Cincotti, Cy Coleman, Ann Hampton Callaway, Eric Comstock, Rita Moreno, Quincy Jones, Ronnie Milsap, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Chris Connor … the list threatens to start a precedent. Nobody knows who will essay “Fever” and “Mañana” (some things must remain secret). One thing is certain: Nobody would be foolish enough to try “Is That All There Is?”, so after an introduction by Mike Stoller, get ready for the song on film, performed by Miss Peggy Lee herself.

Peggy once told me, “When it comes to singing for 100 people in a nightclub or 10,000 people in a stadium, I don’t much care as long as they like me. But when it comes to buying a new car or upholstering a sofa, 10,000 people at 50 bucks a pop is better.” Carnegie Hall is selling out fast, so even if you don’t see her in person on June 23, Miss Peggy Lee will be there.