By Rob Blackwelder
When Stephen King steps off the pulp horror assembly line, his work tends to turn toward the warm, nostalgic and philosophical -- and the best Stephen King movies have always come from these works.
Set in 1960 Connecticut, "Hearts in Atlantis" is just such a movie, lying somewhere between "Stand By Me" and "The Green Mile" in its heady atmosphere of wonder, mystery, and the rose-colored remembrances of childhood.
It's the story of a young boy named Bobby (freckled, wide-eyed, curly-haired and charismatic Anton Yelchin) who is befriended by an enigmatic boarder living in the upstairs apartment of the house he shares with his acrimonious mother (Hope Davis), a resentful widow left in debt by Bobby's gambling-addicted father.
She's a troubled and distrusting woman who selfishly buys dresses for herself while claiming to have no money to spend on Bobby's birthday (she gets him a library card as a gift). So it's no wonder the boy latches on to the friendly but elusive Ted Brautigan, played with abstruse but benevolent charm by a perfectly-cast Anthony Hopkins.
Ted fascinates Bobby with his poetically riddled speech ("Thank you for making the skyward journey, an icy root beer awaits you as a reward.") and his surreptitious tales of being a hunted man. Ted pays Bobby a dollar a week to read the newspaper to him and to keep an eye out for dark strangers in identical gray suits and identical tail-finned sedans -- what he calls "low men" in his Dickensian parlance. If they come to town ominously poking around and posting strange flyers about missing animals, Ted says he must flee for his life. "They want me back under their control," he whispers before staring off into space like he's in a trance.
Hopkins puts on his amiably erudite airs in this cryptic, compassionate role that's not the stuff of Oscar nominations, but is still everything that makes the man a great actor. He's as fascinating to the viewer as he is to his new young friend, yet we understand why he makes Bobby's mother wary. He seems at once like a strong, protective surrogate father and like a disconcerting wayfarer with veiled motives.
Slowly and quite subtly, employing the film's nebulous ambience to maximum effect, director Scott Hicks ("Shine," "Snow Falling on Cedars") begins to reveal that Ted has potent and transmissible psychic powers which become part of his bond with young Bobby. Without being told a thing, Ted knows about Bobby's father. He saves the Bobby from a neighborhood bully by divining the bigger boy's darkest secret, and he inadvertently passes on some of his abilities, which Bobby discovers by beating a three-card monty dealer at the county fair.
All the while, "Hearts in Atlantis" is tingling with portentous precognition that Ted's "low men" are closing in, and who they really are comes as a revealing, crafty and dangerous surprise.
The film unfolds as a flashback from the point of view of an adult Bobby -- played by the grossly under-appreciated, often melancholy character actor David Morse -- whose memories are stirred when he learns his two best friends from childhood have both passed away.
As a result, a golden-toned and excessively idyllic story of first love runs parallel to all of the above. Hicks lays it on thick with slow-motion shots of a girl riding on Bobby's bicycle handlebars, of them walking along railroad tracks at sunset and sitting on a fallen tree trunk over a babbling brook while the soundtrack bleats out "Only You" by The Platters and Chubby Checkers' "The Twist."
But such scenes rise above their clichés thanks to the performances of Yelchin and the extraordinary Mika Boorem ("Along Came a Spider," "The Patriot") -- a child actress whose talent is on par with the young Kirsten Dunst -- as Bobby's best friend, first kiss, and the girl he never forgot even after growing up.
Even when "Hearts in Atlantis" leans toward hackneyed images of All-American innocence, Hicks still exercises subtlety in some form, like the way he only alludes to the fact that a haunting snapshot young Bobby took of the beautiful Boorem is what inspired him to become a photographer as an adult.
That kind of trust in the audience's intelligence and the fact that this film is layered in orbiting subplots (mother's sexually aggressive boss, dad's bookie, the "low men") that all play into the climax help give "Hearts in Atlantis" that same energy and sentimental allure which has made Stephen King's softer side such a rich source for utterly engrossing cinema.
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Friday 28th September 2001
Box Office USA: $23.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $24.2M
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Production compaines: Castle Rock Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
Fresh: 67 Rotten: 68
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Scott Hicks
Starring: Anthony Hopkins as Ted Brautigan, Anton Yelchin as Robert 'Bobby' Garfield, Hope Davis as Elizabeth 'Liz' Garfield, Mika Boorem as Carol Gerber, David Morse as Adult Bobby Garfield, Alan Tudyk as Monte Man, Tom Bower as Len Files, Celia Weston as Alana Files
Also starring: Will Rothhaar
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