2 MARCH 1985, Page 34


In the heartland

Peter Ackroyd

Places in the Heart ('PG', Classic Haymarket) rr he setting is Waxahachie, Texas 3 'preserve of the past', as the publici material describes it, although on th,1,,s occasion the past has been miraculousu revived and the action takes place inthe Thirties. It is, in other words, situated within the American pastoral belt, that il area of small communities and sol,'" churches,' wooden houses and dirt ir°8us.; exclusively by film-makers. e° which is bathed in arc-lights and populateu Sally Field, who made her reputty from playing the rural unionist Norrna Rae, here takes on an extension of that role in Edna Spalding: once more she is the oppressed but plucky creature, against both men and the world in order to protect 'her own' — her own in this case. being two children, a small farm, lodger, and a black farm-hand. As soon as her husband is accidentally shot, krica that blows are going to rain down upon her staunch little head — and they come In quick succession, the prospect of fore- closure and the reality of a tornado being

fighting a Wino only two of the stones on her path towards freedom and dignity. The Depression makes her strong, however, and through effort and perseverance she manages to grow the cotton which will support her. Places in the Heart is the American equiva- lent of socialist realism, since it takes as its theme the heroic stature of ordinary peo- Ple and then goes on to prove it with a number of broad strokes. The writer and director, Robert Benton (who, in the past, has dipped more than his toe into such sentimentality with Kramer v. Kramer), has suggested that this film rep- resents the way in which he remembers the Texas of his childhood: this in itself might account for the tone and manner which are both somehow 'larger than life', if we were sure that it really bore any resemblance to 'life' in the first place. It is more like a dream of the period, very precise in outline but strangely lacking in content — a fantasy which acts as a vehicle for the linage of a maternal figure and, in the final sequences of the film, the displacement of time itself. As a result, Places in the Heart Provides not a plot but a series of gestures — good woman, blind person, plucky children, hard lives, despair, joy, religion. This makes it in certain respects a strangely unmoving film, since it tries so hard to elicit suitable responses that we watch its strenuous efforts to do so rather than any eventual result. Over the last one or two years there have l'een a number of these gritty, regional Ms — all of them, characteristically, starring a famous actress in an heroic role. It is difficult to know what this fashion signifies, although no doubt the combina- tti.°11 of atavistic traditionalism and a primi- :lve `women's liberation' is a successful 'ne; certainly it seems to have had the re. quired effect on an American audience, since Places in the Heart has been nomin- ated for several Oscars. It might get one kir the worst title. But there may be another, and more "Portant, reason for its success: the film is one in which people are shown to change °r shape their fates by their own actions; everyone concerned is either making or Planting something in an uncomplicated WaY (the only villains, in fact, are the entrepreneurs who are seen to be quite extraneous to this natural world of effort), flocl this theme may exert a certain appeal 1:1?, a society where such physical interven- i,lon seems much more difficult to achieve. It is not pretisely an efflorescence of the Pioneer spirit, since that was involved in the idea of conflict and conquest — one Might call it, instead, a nostalgic return to the ordinary springs of human action. It is some ways an inspiring, if not necessari- Y invigorating, theme — and it is one that Manages in part to overcome the sen- timentality of the plot. Places in the Heart is not an altogether memorable film, but hat strength it possesses comes from the tact that it has the courage of its orthodox convictions. It is soap opera, but it is advanced soap opera.