These family ties are full of knots

Two new foreign films chronicle families dealing with bad situations.

Family matters are at the core of "The Heart of Me" and "The Hard Word," new movies from England and Australia, respectively. But everything is relative, and the fact that these stories focus on kith and kin doesn't mean they're full of harmony and affection.

The Heart of Me stars Helena Bonham Carter as Dinah, a romantic Englishwoman who has the bad fortune to fall in love with her brother-in-law, Rickie, a quiet businessman who reciprocates her feelings. Their fling blossoms into a long-term affair, during which they satisfy their passions while keeping Madeleine, the sister and wife, in the dark. Eventually the arrangement goes astray, bringing disappointment and heartbreak. Meanwhile other occurrences, such as an unintended pregnancy and a bout of meddling by the sisters' mother, render the family's situation even more complicated.

"The Heart of Me" is based on a 1953 novel by Rosamond Lehmann, loosely based on her liaison with Cecil Day Lewis, the English poet laureate. The film's power grows from its dark-toned portrayal of the World War II era and from its evocative use of flashbacks, which show more interest in the characters' emotional lives than in story devices like surprise and suspense. Directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan, this is a touching and intelligent drama.

The Hard Word zeroes in on three brothers who have built a joint career as thieves. Sprung from the slammer for one last job, they take up the challenge of stealing millions from the Melbourne Cup racing sweepstakes. If these misguided siblings had spent enough time out of jail to see a proper ration of caper films, they'd know better than to trust new associates. (Anyone named Tarzan is a psycho for sure.) And they wouldn't expect their sleazy lawyer to keep his hands off the sexy wife one of them has somehow managed to attract.

The film would work better if its story unfolded more swiftly and if its twists were more unexpected. The acting is solid, though - Guy Pearce and Rachel Griffiths lead the cast - and you'll learn a new factoid or two. Did you know butchers Down Under have an argot so esoteric you need subtitles to translate it? Neither did I. I'm sure the tidbit will come in handy if I ever need to haggle over the price of an Australian sausage.

"The Heart of Me," rated R, contains nudity and sex. "The Hard Word," rated R, contains sex, violence, and profanity.

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