'Emotional Arithmetic' lacks heart

LIZ BRAUN - Sun Media

, Last Updated: 3:42 AM ET

Emotional Arithmetic is an interesting story, but the storytelling doesn't add up. A strong cast goes through the motions against a pretty backdrop -- a farm in the Eastern Townships in Quebec -- but the picture, which played here first at the Toronto film festival, never fully engages a viewer.

Susan Sarandon and Christopher Plummer star as Melanie and David Winters, a long-married couple. There is tension between them, and it's obvious that their marriage has been tested; at any rate, since David's heart attack, their adult son (Roy Dupuis) lives with them.

The Winters are expecting an important house guest.

As a child, Melanie spent time during World War II at Drancy, a transit camp outside Paris where Jews were held prior to their trip to Auschwitz or another camp. Her parents gone, the adolescent Melanie was protected at Drancy by Jakob Bronski (Max von Sydow), a kind man who saved Melanie and her young friend Christopher from certain death. Melanie has spent her adult life keeping records of, and working for, victims of political oppression. She clips news articles, researches, writes letters and files endless bits of paper; through her obsessive work, she discovers that Jakob Bronski is still alive. Now, he's coming to visit her.

Thrilled at her discovery and looking forward to a reunion with her old friend after 40 years, Melanie is stunned to find that Jakob has brought her a gift: her friend Christopher (Gabriel Byrne) from the camp. He is her first and most important love. Once Melanie, Jakob and Christopher are together, the bond they forged at Drancy becomes as strong as ever.

Much in the present is threatened, and the future looks uncertain. Melanie's emotional frailty is underlined. Christopher's solitary life is examined. Jakob is fragile from years in prison camps and psychiatric hospitals. Nothing that has happened to this trio since the war seems to have lived up to the emotional intensity of their time together. Much that was buried comes back to the surface of their lives.

How people deal with the aftermath of tragedy is a fascinating subject, but the feelings involved are never conveyed in this film. Emotional Arithmetic is all about the math, not the emotion; it's all brain and no heart as far as the filmmaking goes.

There are flashbacks to Drancy (with the underrated Kris Holden-Reid as a young Jakob) but they're clunky and add little to a viewer's understanding, while scenes in the present are laden with visual cliches and Important Symbols A'Plenty -- like a sudden rain that washes things clean, so to speak. It's a character-driven story, but the characters never become three-dimensional. That means you'll be bored.

Emotional Arithmetic is based on the novel by Matt Cohen. The film has a handful of good scenes, but it's mostly self-important to an irritating degree. What a waste of a very good cast.

(This film is rated PG)


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