A solid and promising debut from writer-director Meg Richman, UNDER HEAVEN is based on the Henry James novel The Wings of the Dove, adding about a hundred years and 5,000 miles to the setting. Unfortunately, Richman's work must stand in the shadow of last year's lavish, Oscar-nominated,
period adaptation of the same story.
Occasionally employed and less occasionally sober, Cynthia Loomis (Molly Parker) and Buck Henson (Aden Young) subsist in Seattle. The young lovers travel by bus to visit Cynthia's mother (Krisha Fairchild) on her birthday, and arrive stoned on cough syrup. Thrice divorced from alcoholics, Mrs.
Newhouse warns her daughter against involvement with a man like Buck. Soon after their return to Seattle, Cynthia leaves Buck, and sets out to go straight.
Cynthia finds employment as a live-in caregiver for wealthy, terminally ill Eleanor Dunston (Joely Richardson). The extroverted Cynthia and timid Eleanor become close friends. One day, Cynthia runs into Buck, who has stopped drinking and kicked drugs. Introducing Buck as her half-brother, Cynthia
convinces Eleanor to hire him on as a gardener, and Buck moves into a cottage on the estate.
Cynthia comes up with a plan for Buck to seduce and marry Eleanor, who has no other family, and thus inherit her fortune when she dies. Eleanor, who's had a double mastectomy, never thought a man could be interested in her again, so when Buck flirts with her, she falls for him quickly.
When her housekeeper, Mrs. Fletcher (Marjorie Nelson), catches Buck and Cynthia in bed together, she reports what she has seen to Eleanor. Eleanor tells Buck that she knows what he and Cynthia are doing, but that she doesn't care. Buck confesses that he has really fallen in love with her. This
prompts a jealous Cynthia to attempt suicide with a drug overdose. Eleanor tells Cynthia not to worry because she knows she is just borrowing Buck. Eleanor offers to marry Buck but he refuses.
When Eleanor dies, she leaves everything to Buck, who doesn't want it. He gives it all to Cynthia, and goes off to start a landscaping business. Cynthia invites her mother and stepsisters to come live with her in the Dunston mansion.
Even with the change of time and place, the story is a good one and Richman tells it well, but UNDER HEAVEN can't help but suffer in comparison to 1997's THE WINGS OF THE DOVE. The problem is that changing the setting to contemporary times robs the work of its edge. There's something in the
earlier film about Victorian mores and the sight of Helena Bonham Carter in a big hat that gives the goings-on between the trio of lovers shock value. The same amoral behavior taking place in post-grunge Seattle seems not just acceptable, but expectable.
UNDER HEAVEN benefits from good performances by its leads. Richardson may be a bit too beatific, but it's easy to understand why a young woman facing death would care more about the happiness of her final days than the disposition of her estate after she's gone. Australian actor Young is charming
in a role that requires him to be just that, while Parker gives a strong performance that centers the movie, playing her character with the right mix of deviousness and desperation. (Sexual situations, nudity, profanity.)
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- Released: 1998
- Rating: R
- Review: A solid and promising debut from writer-director Meg Richman, UNDER HEAVEN is based on the Henry James novel The Wings of the Dove, adding about a hundred years and 5,000 miles to the setting. Unfortunately, Richman's work must stand in the shadow of last… (more)