Screens The heart's construction 

Even in our dispassionate time, secrets equal tragedy

Diana Lee, the imperious, extravagant theater diva played by Glenn Close in the Merchant Ivory film Heights, is unbearably eager to pass along her disillusionment with marriage and love to her engaged daughter, Isabel. Humiliated by her husband's open affair with her younger understudy, Lee takes every opportunity in the 18 hours the film spans to urge Isabel to jilt the handsome, reliable Jonathan.

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Glenn Close as theater diva Diana Lee comforts her daughter Isabel, played by Elizabeth Banks, in Heights.

Isabel is openly hostile to her mother's unsolicited advice, mostly because it strikes too close to home: She's already having doubts, which are being liberally fed and watered by an ex-boyfriend who is trying to entice her away from the altar with a once-in-a-lifetime professional opportunity. Isabel's distress, however, is nothing compared to that of her fiancé, who has just learned that an exhibit by a famous photographer who is known to sleep with all of his subjects will include nude photos of him. In the meantime, a young actor who auditions for the great Diana seems more nonplussed that her daughter lives in his building than that Lee could make or break his fledgling career. "There's no art to find the mind's construction in the face," King Duncan observes to Macbeth in Act I. But, as Diana complains, two degrees of separation are the most one can hope for in New York, and in the age of mechanical (and digital) reproduction, our skeletons may pop out of the closet at inopportune times.

Heights juggles a lot of plot, and it does so with clumsy appendages, such as a reporter who is hired by Vanity Fair to write a story on Benjamin Stone, the lothario photographer, by interviewing a voluminous list of his past paramours. But the reporter, Peter (played with understated pathos by John Light), fancies himself Stone's current boy toy. At the end of the film's very long day, the director tries to catch the many balls he's tossed willy-nilly into the air at Diana's birthday party, where a little cinematic contrivance brings together Diana's husband and her rival, the reporter bearing Jonathan's secret, the ambivalent Isabel, and a handsome Welsh stranger.

Watching Peter's face transform over the course of the afternoon from compressed torment to agonized acceptance as one Stone ex after another erodes his illusions is one of Heights' few pleasures. Which, you've probably guessed, means that Heights is a tragedy in which the characters are romantically mismatched because they are being dishonest with themselves. Nonetheless, the film doesn't end on a hopeless note; in fact, it pastes on quickie optimistic resolutions for all but one of our protagonists. But there are no heroes or villains in Heights. The characters are all imperfect humans, struggling along, mucking up their best intentions, and no one is denied the viewer's empathy. On the one hand, I want to applaud director Chris Terrio for refusing to demonize any of the easy targets; on the other, this film could have used a little venom to boost our pulse rates. Diana and the Welshman - presented as the antidote to Isabel and her peers, who are sophisticated to the point of attenuation - are the closest we get.

Heights

Dir. Chris Terrio; writ. Terrio, Amy Fox; feat. Glenn Close, Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Jesse Bradford, Thomas Lennon, Matthew Davis, John Light, Isabella Rossellini (R)
"For God's sake, take a risk sometime this weekend!" Diana admonishes her fawning Juilliard class at the beginning of the film, but it's apparent early on that Heights' characters are planning on sticking to their personal scripts, no matter how unhappy it may make them. Ironically, so is the film. Many of the crucial lines of dialogue are sophomoric (Ten years from now, "you'll still be smoking pot on rooftops with girls you don't know how to love," Isabel tells her old flame) and only Close - who like her character so outshines the footlights surrounding her she seems almost supernatural - saves the film from ennui.

Heights' opening scene, in which Diana chides her class for performing Macbeth without verve, telegraphs the film's message: Passion may not make us happy, but it won't make us unhappier than suffering in silence. Diana is mourning her husband's betrayal in private, but she's vital and engaged; she acts, but she also acts, and this, Heights suggests, is the best we can do. Is there no cure for the burden of a troubled conscience or heavy heart? Macbeth implores the doctor in Act V. Nay, he replies, "Therein the patient must minister to himself."

By Elaine Wolff


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