THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It has been said that Stephen King is one of the most underrated writers working today. Although he sells millions of books, King has been pigeonholed as a horror writer. The fact that his horror novels are expertly crafted seems to make no difference to his critics. Nor does the fact that some of his non-horror efforts - from "The Green Mile" to "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" - are among the most compelling, artful stories of our time. Hearts in Atlantis is the latest film adaptation of a King novel, and it is also one of the best. It is the kind of movie that fills me with joy, because it dares to be unconventional while still capturing some real truths about life.

The picture opens with Bobby Garfield (David Morse) receiving word that his childhood friend Sully has died. The news sparks a trip to his hometown, where he reminisces about the summer of 1960, when he was 11 years old. Anton Yelchin plays Bobby as a child. He spends his days with Sully and their friend Carol (Mika Boorem). Their play time is a welcome respite from his home life, where mother Liz (Hope Davis) claims to be too poor to buy Bobby a new bicycle, although she always seems to have enough money for a nice new dress. Bobby's father has long since passed away, a subject Liz refuses to discuss despite her son's best efforts to gain information.

Anthony Hopkins stars as a mystery man on the run in Hearts in Atlantis
Into their lives comes Ted Brautigan (Anthony Hopkins), a friendly man who rents out the apartment above Bobby's house. Ted takes an immediate shine to the boy, offering him a dollar a week to read the newspaper aloud. Liz is suspicious of Ted's motives, but Bobby idolizes the man. After their friendship grows, Ted lets Bobby in on a secret: he has a special power that requires him to hide from the "low men" who want to exploit it. The exact nature of the power is initially unclear to the boy; he sees Ted go into occasional trances, but doesn't understand what's happening. Nevertheless, he agrees to watch out for the "low men" and to alert his new friend whenever he sees something suspicious.

Hearts in Atlantis looks, on the surface, like another coming-of-age story. Bobby gets his first kiss from Carol (one that Ted predicts will be "the kiss by which all future kisses will be measured"), confronts his mother about their issues, and takes a few steps away from childhood and into adulthood. What makes it unusual, though, is the otherworldly angle that Ted brings to it. He represents something magical, yet dangerous - all the things adults hide from children but which children desperately want to know about. As we come to realize what his power is, the story takes on a different dimension. It is not about growing up so much as about growing wise. Children struggle to understand things that can't be explained (the death of a father, or the longings of a single mother, for example). Ted represents a chance to peek behind the curtain of those adult mysteries, complete with the wonder and pain they can bring.

Director Scott Hicks (Shine) has crafted a beautiful film full of imagery that puts you in an early-60's summer. He gets great performances from Anton Yelchin and the other child actors. But the movie belongs to Hopkins, who deserves Oscar consideration. Ted is, in many ways, an enigma. Where he comes from and where he is going remain a mystery. In some ways, you are not even sure he was really there. That's a hard feat to pull off (actors rely on absolutes in creating characters) but Hopkins does it brilliantly. The less you truly know about Ted Brautigan, the more riveted you are by him.

The moral of the story lies in something Ted tells young Bobby early on: "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." Hearts in Atlantis is about how Bobby learns what this really means. It is one of the most subtle movies I have ever seen. Rather than beating you over the head with a point, Hicks and screenwriter William Goldman (working, of course, from King's source material) allow you to find the moral for yourself. They intend to make sure you don't stop thinking about the film after you leave the theather.

Their approach works. Something inside of me has been touched by this story. As I write this review, I find myself growing nostalgic for the film. I want to walk away from my computer and see it again right now. It's just that good.

( 1/2 out of four)

Hearts in Atlantis is rated for violence and thematic scenes. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
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