Photo | Charming Hearts
Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures
A simple-but-effective historical drama about the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, maybe “Charming the Hearts of Men” is just the kind of movie we need these days. It’s a feel good movie about social justice, and while it suffers sometimes from naiveté, I think that’s pretty much all I can handle right now. Gritty realism about insurmountable struggle hits too close to home, so I enjoyed this admittedly sugar-coated story with a great cast, especially star Anna Friel who is indeed extremely charming.
Anna Friel, a British actress who pops up all the time (but not often enough) and is probably best known for the delightful television series “Pushing Daisies,” stars as Grace Gordon, a twice divorced woman who returns to her ancestral mansion in the Deep South after the death of her father, a respected judge who left behind many debts. Grace’s lack of money earning options stands in for the larger struggle of women. She has only ever gotten money from husbands or her father.
Portraying women’s fight for equal rights through the lens of a sexy divorcee who uses her sexuality to survive might feel unpleasant, but surely it is not entirely inaccurate. The performances elevate and humanize what could be a generic, hackneyed story, especially the relationships between women. Friel lives in her house with the family’s long time cook Mattie (Starletta Dupois) and her granddaughter Jubilee (Pauline Dyer), and they carry on the only way they know how.
Rounding out the cast is a really engaging newcomer named Tina Ivlev as Ruth who, naturally, earns money in the oldest profession. I will not pretend that there are not plenty of clichés in “Charming the Hearts of Men,” but I guess it just charmed the heart of me, too. It should be just offensive to see Grace, Mattie and Jubilee sit down with the late Judge’s Rolodex and try to find a new male protector, utilizing the usual ways to a man’s heart. But these three women made the story about them in a way that was really compelling.
Which brings us to the men, those whose hearts are so charmed by these various enterprising women. Kelsey Grammer plays a man simply known as “The Congressman,” a seasoned politician with a deep appreciation for Hattie’s cooking and Grace’s graces. He is earmarked as a source of capital for the beleaguered mansion and its inhabitants, a fate from which his faithful driver and confidant, Walter (Aml Ameen) is keen to save him. Walter and the film’s other black characters debate the looming Civil Rights Bill in a manner that might not withstand the most trenchant contemporary analysis, but this conversation is sufficient for the plot, which amounts basically to “times were changing.”
Holding up his scenes is Sean Astin as a compassionate and attentive businessman named George, another lovely character in Astin’s affable Rudy/Samwise Gamgee/Bob Newby pantheon of decency. George is a sympathetic pawn shop owner, and he doesn’t have enough scenes.
While there are some thematic elements I could identify intellectually to find fault with, the characters as I experienced them were convincing. Kelsey Grammer in particular, is problematic, a male savior to our damsels in distress. He feels gleefully entitled to all the comforts that Grace’s house has to offer, and, worse, he congratulates himself when he simply recognizes women’s humanity. Ultimately that is subverted, he is not all he is cracked up to be, and the sisters end up doing it for themselves (kind of.) On paper, the solutions to complex problems are rather glib. But when Anna Friel was onscreen, I believed her.
When Grace tries to sell Avon and happens upon the indomitable Ruth at her house of ill repute and all the girls become Avon customers, it should be cheesy. And it is a little cheesy, but I loved those women’s scenes together. “Charming the Hearts of Men,” as the title implies, is an old-fashioned movie, and its feel-good themes can be a little too on the nose, but they still feel good. For example, at one point the Congressman beams that everyone now has a seat at the table, as everyone literally takes their seat at the table, and it is not subtle. It’s also far from true.
The sexist villains were not really punished, and the triumphs of the Civil Rights Bill are very much treated like noblesse oblige rather than basic fundamental decency, so perhaps this movie was more realistic than I realized. At any rate, the women who I liked so much ended up better off than they started, and this was a very engaging historic dramedy.
“Charming the Hearts of Men” is now playing at the Crescent Theater.
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