By turns brilliant and frustrating, Vincent Ward’s Map of the Human Heart (1993) is one of those films that you admire more for what it tries to do than for what it actually accomplishes. The movie is nothing if not ambitious, something that works both for and against it. Ward’s story contains a lot of ideas, spanning 44 years — starting in 1965, flashing back to 1921 and then bringing itself back through WWII up to 1965. The attempt is to create a kind of epic built around a very human, very romantic and very romanticized story.
The problem — apart from an ending that takes the story too far for its own good — is that the film works better as a frequently breathtaking visual epic than as a human drama. The framing device has the middle-aged Avika (Jason Scott Lee, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story), half Eskimo and half white, telling his story to a cartographer (a cameo role for John Cusack). It’s a story about how another cartographer, Walter Russell (Patrick Bergin, Ella Enchanted), arrived in his village in 1921 and took Avika (played as a young teenager by newcomer Robert Joamie) to be cured of tuberculosis in Canada.
In the hospital in Canada, Avika meets a girl his age, Albertine (Annie Galipeau, Grey Owl), who is half Native American and half white, and the two become friends — leaning toward more. This is quickly scotched by Sister Banville (a cameo for Jeanne Moreau), because Albertine, unlike Avika, will be able to pass for white. It turns out to be easier to separate them physically than emotionally: when Avika is a young man, he asks Walter to look her up; Walter instead romances her — and their romance is rekindled during WWII in England.
It’s a fairly typical love triangle that’s inflated by the hugely romantic vision of a director who stages love scenes in the dome of the Albert Hall and atop an observation balloon. Somewhere in this — for me at least — the human element got short-sheeted. I know what I was supposed to be feeling, but I never really connected with the characters. Others have felt differently, so take that into account. But even if Map of the Human Heart is emotionally wanting, the film is so strikingly beautiful (the bombing of Dresden sequence is remarkable) that it’s worth seeing for its imagery alone.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke