An honorable disappointment, "Heartland" is the sort of independent feature whose obvious sincerity and commercial iffiness usually combine to inspire that classic critical gesture, Taking the Thought for the Deed. Opening today at four area theaters, "Heartland" proves too undernourished and tentative as a dramatic creation to sustain the promise suggested by its raw material, an account of ranching life in Wyoming, circa 1910, drawn from an authentic, first-person source, "Letters of a Woman Homesteader" by Elinore Randall Stewart, or by its frequently imposing landscapes, courtesy of the Snowy Mountains near Harlowton and Judith Gap, Mont.
The bulk of the production cost -- $600,000 -- was underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and it seems to me an eminently respectable, defensible gamble. If an astute screenplay had been distilled from Stewart's memoir and then transposed to vivid imaginative life on the screen, the results would have been a considerable feather in the endowment's cap -- a renewal of the American western from outside the Hollywood system and a story that derived heroic affirmation from gritty frontier authenticity. As a matter of curious fact, many people have already concluded that "Heartland" achieves exactly the distinction I wish it had achieved.
The Stewart chronicle might have been perked up a little if entrusted to a savory, idiomatic writer with a flair for western characters and settings. The Charles Portis of "True Grit," for example. The crucial problem with the film is that it bogs down in underlit housebound inertia soon after the heroine, a widowed laundress with a young daughter, takes up her new duties as housekeeper to a Wyoming rancher, a taciturn Scotsman named Clyde Stewart. Elinore and Clyde, played by Conchata Farrell and Rip Torn, enter into a marriage of convenience that suggests wonderful possibilities for endearing character development and interplay. In fact, the Stewart union endured for 30 years, but the period covered in the movie, a troubled first year highlighted by a tragic childbirth and near financial ruin, seems at once plodding and unfocused.
The screenwriter, Beth Ferris, had no previous dramatic writing experience. She had worked principally as a documentary cinematographer. So had director Richard Pearce, although he also had two television features under his belt before starting "Heartland." Pearce doesn't seem especially confident with the actors, but perhaps this too is a function of inadequate material. The actors often leave the impression that they're waiting around for someone to deliver the script and too shy to pass the time with improvised small talk of their own.
The principal cast members are not only professional but fairly familiar. In addition to Farrell and Torn, Lilia Skala, who played the Mother Superior in "Lilies of the Field," turns up as a neighboring rancher, and Barry Primus plays the Stewarts' hired hand. This form of advantage is also canceled out by the listless continuity. At a glance the co-stars certainly suggest a potentially satisfying odd couple, but they also need the scenes and the evolution of a relationship that would realize the potential. They remain eager, willing and underemployed.
There's also a rather bleary feminist leitmotif that seems to get in the way of full-bodied exploration of the Stewarts' eccentric marriage. At one point Elinore remarks in exasperation that she "can't talk to that man!" and the Skala character seems to be envisioned as the confidante she needs. Unfortunately, the women don't share any amusing or edifying heart-to-hearts either. The inescapable conclusion is that no one associated with "Heartland" knew how to compose entertaining talk of any description.