Fox // 1986 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Bill Treadway (Retired) // March 11th, 2004
A dramatic comedy from Bruce Beresford, director of Driving Miss Daisy. Just thank God it's based on a play and not a historical figure.
Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Beth Henley, Crimes of the Heart focuses on the Magrath sisters, a strange yet lovable lot. Lenny (Diane Keaton, Something's Gotta Give, Town & Country) has stayed home caring for Old Granddaddy (Hurd Hatfield, King of Kings). The old man took in the sisters after their mother hanged herself -- and the family cat -- in the cellar. Meggie (Jessica Lange, Normal, Big Fish) escaped to Hollywood but hasn't made much of an impact there. Babe (Sissy Spacek, Tuck Everlasting, In the Bedroom) has gotten herself into quite a pickle. She is currently under investigation for shooting her husband after he intervenes in an affair she is having with an African-American teenager. Meggie has returned home to see Old Granddaddy who is wasting away in a hospital and to support Babe. The return home sparks feelings both happy and bitter as many years of dirty laundry is aired out in an unusual manner.
Bruce Beresford has made a specialty out of making films that celebrate the unique quirks of Southern life. The cycle began with Tender Mercies (1983), that wonderful movie starring Robert Duvall as a drunken singer who tries to reshape his life. Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Rich in Love (1992) continued in that same vein. Crimes of the Heart is no different, full of the rich detail for which Beresford's Southern films are renowned. He rightly concentrates on the particular textures and quirks of the characters rather than on the scenery. Then again, this may be due to the fact that celebrated playwrights wrote all of the abovementioned screenplays, either as adaptations of their own work or as originals for the screen. Plays tend to be more character-driven due to the restricted physical space. That singular quality is still retained in Beth Henley's adaptation of her play, despite the attempts to open it up.
The centerpiece of Crimes of the Heart is its three lead performances. Beresford divides our expectations somewhat, giving Diane Keaton the role that requires a more subdued and introverted performance, and the blowsy free spirit to Sissy Spacek. I think this was a good move, since too often Hollywood tends to cast films according to an actor's previous work, resulting in performances that are too similar to one another (a main reason why Nicole Kidman was not nominated for an Oscar this year). At any rate, rarely has Keaton been this superb on screen. Those of you who ask why my reception to her award-winning work in Something's Gotta Give was lukewarm should watch this film and compare. Some critics have said that Keaton is merely repeating Annie Hall. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her work here is far superior, with a greater tone and with deeper textures than she has displayed before. Sissy Spacek has rarely done comedy, but Crimes of the Heart proves she is quite capable of doing solid work in this field. (The fact that she won the Golden Globe and was an Oscar nominee for this performance cements it.). She resists making this character out of standard clichés that have been favored by Hollywood in years past. The comic quirks come from within and feel real, despite the farfetchedness of the plot. Of course, Jessica Lange has been one of the most interesting and unique actresses of the past 27 years. Often balancing commercial films with more personal projects, she combines elements from both acting styles here. In many ways, Lange has the most difficult role of the three, since Meggie is supposed to be a symbol of normalcy among the zany and bizarre antics of her sisters. The role requires a certain restraint, and more subtlety than most actresses can handle. However, Lange succeeds beautifully. I must also mention Tess Harper, who appeared in Beresford's Tender Mercies -- here, she takes the usual clichéd role of the annoying relative and breathes new life into it, lifting the character to new levels. (She was also an Oscar nominee in the supporting actress category for this film.)
Crimes of the Heart was originally released by DEG (DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group), an independent studio. DEG closed due to financial problems in 1987, leaving the film in rights limbo ever since. 20th Century Fox purchased the video rights last year and now resurrects the film on DVD. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is satisfying enough for home viewing. The colors are not as vivid as they should be. There is some softness to the image that becomes a bit distracting at times. The occasional scratch and speck appears. Somehow, despite these minor problems, the film looks much better than it has in years...though I'm not sure if that really is praise after all.
Audio is offered in stereo, with two options. Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is best, with the dialogue popping out so vividly that it feels as if you are in the same room with the three sisters. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix doesn't sound nearly as good, as it is mixed far too low and it's a struggle to hear the massive amount of dialogue. Go with the former track if you are undecided. English subtitles have been included for those who may need them to understand the sometimes-incomprehensible Southern slang. The captions help, so don't be afraid to use this option.
Fox has made this a barebones disc with a complete absence of special features. Not even the film's original theatrical trailer is included, which is surprising since it had surfaced as a coming attractions set piece during the film's VHS years on other DEG releases. No commentary track, either, despite the fact that the three leads and director Beresford are still alive and more than happy to discuss their work. For some reason, Beresford's work seems to get the short end of the stick when issued on DVD, even counting the pathetic "Special Edition" of Driving Miss Daisy.
Crimes of the Heart is a wonderful film, full of passion and life that you rarely see in films adapted from stage plays. It's the kind of picture that you want to see again after it has ended and discuss some more. Fox has attached a budget line retail price of $14.95 for the disc and it's good enough to recommend for the time being. I would definitely like to see Fox double dip on this title in the future.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13