Hearts In Atlantis

Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Scott Hicks
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Mika Boorem, David Morse
Rated: PG-13

With Anthony Hopkins in the lead, the respected director Scott Hicks at the helm, and a script by the very literate William Goldman, there’s not much chance that Hearts in Atlantis (based on Stephen King’s novel) isn’t going to be good. And it is good. It’s very good. What it isn’t is great. It’s impossible to fault the performances, the script, the direction, the cinematography or the period atmosphere. Hopkins is simply brilliant as the mysterious Ted Brautigan, a psychic in hiding from someone (presumably the FBI). Overall, he strikes just the right tone and even pulls off the script’s more florid moments. Not just anyone can deliver dialogue such as, “Sometimes when you’re young, you have moments of such happiness, you think you’re living in someplace magical, like Atlantis must have been … then we grow up and our hearts break into two,” and have it sound natural. Hopkins can. And it’s the authority of his performance that holds the film in place. The story line involves the impact he has on the life of 11-year-old Bobby Garfield (Anton Yelchin, Along Came a Spider), the very much neglected child of a widowed, self-indulgent mother (Hope Davis, Next Stop Wonderland). Ted comes into the boy’s life just as his mother — who manages to spend a small fortune on clothing for herself — has given her son a library card for his birthday rather than the bicycle he’s been dreaming of. Bobby isn’t lacking in the friendship department. He has both a best friend, Sully (Will Rothaar, Love and Sex), and an incipient girlfriend, Carol (a beautiful performance from Mika Boorem, Along Came a Spider). But he is clearly lacking in any kind of adult relationship. Ted effortlessly supplies this. Ted, however, is not without his own reasons for attaching himself to Bobby: He needs someone to keep an eye out for his pursuers to arrive on the scene (his psychic powers only extend to what is going on around him at the moment, not to the future). The irony here is that it doesn’t matter that Bobby at first doesn’t believe him and fails to report on the signs he’s been told to watch for: Ted knows what the boy is thinking. This, however, is merely the plot of the film, which is really more a character study about childhood than a work that is plot-driven. And it scores on this level. Some critics have raved over the film capturing “the joys of childhood.” It hardly does that. The film does contain some of those joys — such as the gorgeous and beautifully played sequence where Bobby kisses Carol for the first time on a Ferris wheel — but it’s hardly as simplistic or shallow as that phrase suggests. Rather, those joys are presented exactly as those “moments of happiness” of which Ted speaks. Much of childhood is here presented as an often baffling, frightening and disappointing time. As the film progresses, Bobby’s initial disappointment with his mother grows into utter disillusionment when he finds that she has lied to him about his father, and reveals her truly duplicitous nature (she does something absolutely unspeakable that propels the film to its climax). Thankfully, this is also not presented in a simplistic manner, but leaves the disillusioned Bobby in a position of knowledge where he and his mother can begin to rebuild their relationship on different terms. Childhood is further presented in terms of the world of name-calling bullies, which is certainly not one of its joys. Again, the script is savvy enough to try to understand the meanings behind the bullying without indulging in making the character sympathetic or easily reformed. In this regard, the film is nearly brilliant and virtually flawless. And director Hicks handles it all with graceful assurance and a unique style that integrates setting and character. The only flaw with the film is that there’s a curious sameness to it that makes it start to feel a little bit too much like the formula approach used on all screen adaptations of Stephen King’s more “serious” work. The flashback structure is a little forced and seems there mostly because it’s a structure that’s worked on other such King adaptations. It’s a minor gripe, though, and one that hardly destroys an otherwise beautifully crafted and thoughtful film.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

4 thoughts on “Hearts In Atlantis

  1. jasondelaney

    This is one of those oh so rare films that’s better then the book. In fact having read the book ruined the movie for me because I’m aware of some of some the things the film leaves out. The most important of this being that the old man “gives his psychic powers” to the young boy by having sex with him. It seems to me he wasn’t psychic at all, just an insidious pervert that was hiding from the FBI and exploiting this little boy’s need for a parent to get him in bed. Disgusting.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I’ve never read the story and barely remember the film at this point, but I’m unclear as to whether the idea that he wasn’t psychic is at all is put forth in the book, or whether that’s your interpretation, i.e., is it open to interpretation?

  3. jasondelaney

    Well I suppose it is open to interpretation, I haven’t read the thing in a while. What I can remember about his “psychic” powers was little more than common sense and cold reading, and maybe a healthy dose of nosy snooping. I really think the way this fits into King’s horror cannon is that it never actually comes out and says it’s a scary story. The reason it’s chilling is how easily this little boy is coerced into a sexual relationship with an old man, owing in no small part due to his mothers epic failure as a parent or even a decent human being. This is the type of horror that creeps up on you but never goes “BOO!” It’s more the kind that festers in psyche of the main character and who knows how it manifests in later life? This type of theme isn’t wholly new to King either. I remember in a part of the Tommy Knockers novel one of the characters murders his father on a hunting trip. The character fully believes that the reason he does this is to get the old mans money, but King fills a back story where one week in his childhood mom went out of town and his father did adult things to him and his brother. He remembers his brother saying “Please daddy, not me tonight!” Well as this character is shooting his father he mutters to himself “not you tonight billy, not anymore.” He’s completely unaware of this however, having buried it mentally. That was far and away the scariest thing in that book. The can of lard the father carries into the bedroom just makes the minds eye go places you wish it really hadn’t.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Interesting. King is hardly unknown for tapping into the same themes more than once (that’s true of most writers, filmmakers, etc.), though you’re hitting on works of his that I’ve never read myself.

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