Judge Katie Herrell has already booked her Canadian vacation.
To open their hearts they had to learn to love again.
A sleepily heavy movie, Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning (also called Emotional Arithmetic) juxtaposes the dark world of the Holocaust with the colorful Canadian haven where one survivor struggles to remember and forget.
Facts of the Case
Melanie Lansing Winters (Susan Sarandon) lives a picturesque existence on an expansive hobby farm with her crotchety professor husband David (Christopher Plummer). Although the setting is startling beautiful, there are distinct hints of extreme unhappiness from the very beginning. The cause of this unhappiness is revealed with the arrival of Jakob Bronski (Max von Sydow) and Christopher Lewis (Gabriel Byrne), two men interned with Melanie during the Holocaust. Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning chronicles the first long evening of their reunion.
I thought this film was a love story when I first sat down to watch it. With only a glance at the cover as my introduction, I saw five people smiling and shaking hands over an image of an idyllic windmill and farmhouse.
And while Autumn Hearts is a love story in some ways, it is more about love that could have been, happiness that could have been, life that could have been, if not for the Holocaust.
The first thing that struck me while watching Autumn Hearts is the amazing scenery. Shot in Montreal, the hobby farm the Winters habitat is in full Fall splendor, with dark green grass and leafy trees covered in rich red and orange leaves. The blue clapboard house sits atop gently rolling hills that bottom out at an expansive lake. In the center of the yard sits an antique wooden table; a silent character throughout the film that is respectfully shot in splendor initially and then disarray as the movie follows the same course. There is one shot where the camera is lowered towards the table, slowly and steadily, from a moderate height; it is a patient, loving shot of an inanimate object that heightens the meaning of the table in the movie.
The music is equally powerful, although not necessarily enjoyable. As the camera circles the property and stops haltingly on each main character—introducing the characters before they have actually entered the story-line—mired in their own thoughts, the strings and piano music hints at the ominous story-line to come. The music however, seems just a bit out of synch with the gorgeous setting, despite the appropriate tone. It feels more suited for a Tim Burton film, than one starring Susan Sarandon.
The establishing shots of the farm are some of the most vibrant I've seen on film, and that's with a regular DVD player and aging television. It is stunning camera work and the colors stand in stark contrast to the other story-line in the film, the telling of the tale of the internment of Melanie, Jakob, and Christopher.
This back-story is shot entirely in black and white, and the first shot of Melanie as a child is hauntingly beautiful, although the black and white footage also evokes a bit of Sin City-ness with its shadows and dull lighting. I frequently expected a flash of red to cross the screen and it might have been fitting.
The characters, young and old, are an interesting bunch; they are all simmering beneath the surface. For some, Jakob and Melanie, their anger and hurt manifests itself as mental instability. For Christopher, and the Winters' son Benjamin (Roy Dupuis), their neglect and confusion is manifested as a quiet, internal personality that is both eager to help but also quick to run away from conflict. David Winters is the only character who regularly emotes his anger, but he lashes out in passive-agressive ways that make him seem self absorbed and affected. But because of their burdens, all of the characters seem figments of a larger character, characters never allowed to fully display themselves to the disappointment of the viewer.
I also had a hard time truly believing that any of the characters were truly, or had been, suffering, aside from Jakob. The rest of the actors bore an artfully weathered appearance as if their aging hair and faces were the results of a carefully nuanced beauty regime intended to showcase their age and wisdom, but to never show ill health or the ravages of time. These characters represented the expensive sandblasted jeans approach to aging and it was a bit ill suited to a film about immense hardship.
But with age certainly comes experience and no one can claim Sarandon or Plummer or Byrne hasn't earned their acting chops. In this film those chops were focused on steely looks and conveying wrenching emotions without (most of the time) relying on tears or hitting or tantrums. At the same time these "stars" all deferred to the next "star" so that no one risked one-upping another in this ensemble drama. This act of deferment resulted in the lack of an amazing performance by any of actors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There were some minor problems with this film, and those mostly a result of the frequent shifts from past to present, shifts that could leave a less attentive viewer wondering about the connection between the characters and with other unanswered questions like where was Benjamin's wife during all this, and how was Benjamin and his son, who ranged throughout the movie calling people to dinner, affected by the burden of his mother's past.
Also, the special features includes only a trailer and a "making of" featurette. With such a heavy and historical topic, a top that has been chronicled repeatedly through film, there were certainly some lost opportunities to teach more of the true story of the Holocaust on the special features.
Autumn Hearts: A New Beginning is an interesting film. I really didn't expect to like it, but was quickly wrapped up in the characters and the story and, especially, the setting and the staging. Despite the heavy topic and the strong cast of characters, this could have easily been a formulaic "survivor's tale," if there were such a genre. But thanks to interesting camera work and the juxtaposition between past and present, this film became captivating.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• "Making of" Featurette
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