FILMS PORTRAYING vast lonely open spaces; films whose gradations of light and dark are textural, tactile; historical films telling what really happened from the viewpoint of the people to whom it really happened: pudgy people, people with freckles, people whose hands belie their age--until recently, these films have been almost the exclusive export of Australia.
An American movie without the gloss of Hollywood or the sex appeal of the stars has ended the Australian monopoly. Heartland, an independent effort funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is an American Australian movie, with all the homespun loveliness, all the warmth, all the quietude of such films as My Brilliant Career, Breaker Morant, and The Getting of Wisdom.
The letters of Elinore Randall form the historical basis of the film's plot. A widowed laundress, in 1910 she travelled with her seven-year-old daughter Jerrine across America to Wyoming, where a job keeping house for cattle rancher Clyde Stewart awaited her. The relations among these three, Stewart's hired hand, and a female neighbor make up that part of the movie concerned with things human.
Looming larger are the wilds in which the small, marginal, scattered ranches are engulfed. These flat, wide, empty hills and heavens are unmatchable, a paean to an unspoiled America. Here in Wyoming, Nature tolerates man, his horses and cows and sheep, but barely.
This land, and the people who hang on in it, display a rough simplicity, an unabashed naturalness that would have been the envy of D.H. Lawrence. The branding and gelding of cattle, the butchering of pigs, the birthing of calves are presented honestly: no delicate operations, these; rather, a rough, crude, often grisly patchwork of bawls and grants and squeals, scorched flesh and bristly hides and blood.
The acting suits this blushlessness. Rip Torn as Clyde Stewart lets little pass between his long beard and omnipresent pipe; the very model of a taciturn Scot and rancher, he is a strong, silent physical presence with a reassuring capacity for humor and gentleness. Torn explained his feelings about the role during a recent interview: "I would have done anything to do this film...we all worked for minimum, which after taxes barely covers your expenses." Although the end of shooting saw Torn sufficiently insolvent to borrow money, he remains unperturbed: "Jobs come along and you do them, shitty jobs, for what I call 'fuck-you money.' Then you're free to do the films you want to do."
Co-star Conchata Ferrell, a virtuoso at New York City's Circle Repertory Theatre, is a near- newcomer to cinema. Earthy and sensible, heavy sleeves rolled up to heavy elbows, her Elinore can plow a field and scrub the laundry and milk a cow; she knows how to ride and she plans to learn how to rope. She is a frontier woman, pure and simple; she understands the various businesses of life and how to get on with them.
HEARTLAND is a small film, then, lent a kind of grandeur by its setting and the cheerful, unassuming invincibility of its characters. Blessed with the warmth and goodness of home movies, Heartland's professionalism results from the uniform excellence of its cast and the subtle, piercing eye of its camera, which catches lights and darks and poses like a latter-day Vermeer. As simple as corn pone and just as good, Heartland reveals America, the America of Whitman's poetry, the America of open spaces and open people.
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