First things first in the credit-is-due department: The quality piano playing in "Matters of the Heart" is actually done by a musician named Mona Golabek. Only the pretend playing is performed (with varying degrees of persuasion) by Jane Seymour and Chris Gartin.
The movie is the latest original film on the USA cable network, premiering at 9 tonight on the basic service. At risk of giving offense, it is one of those movies you could once safely call a woman's film or a sob story -- in other words, heavy with an impossible romance and a tragic heroine. (It's adapted from the book "The Country of the Heart" by Barbara Wersba.)
It's pretty good on music (though not quite a "Madame Sousatzka" or "Five Easy Pieces"), moderately diverting in the romance department (with a tantalizing Seymour semi-nude scene) and distressingly predictable and sentimental in its ending.
Seymour plays Hadley Norman, a famous pianist/composer who comes to a small Vermont town, ostensibly to work but also to escape some dark reality in her life. Gartin is Steven, a poor local prodigy whose bitter Vietnam vet father does not support his piano playing.
The most remarkable part of Seymour's performance is that she manages early on to look downright frumpy. Boozing, smoking, shuffling about in a bathrobe and contemplating suicide, she warns the young man, "You don't choose music, it chooses you, and it drives you and drives you till you're all burned out."
It is no surprise that taking on the prodigy first as student and then as lover brings new life to the troubled woman and causes family problems for Steven (although James Stacy as his father is the least persuasive part of the movie).
The script by producers Martin Tahse and Linda Bergman occasionally rises above the melodramatic, such as when Steven's piano teacher notes that "if he played basketball, the Kiwanis would be paying his way to college." Instead, Hadley is the boy's ticket to a prestigious New England piano competition. (Shades of "The Competition.")
How does he do? What happens to her? And will you cry at the outcome? Probably yes to that last, either in genuine emotion or from despair at its soppy pretension. If a dose of schmaltz is good for you (as Media Monitor's grandmother used to say), "Matters of the Heart" may satisfy.
But one major irritant deserves some mention: In the semifinals of the competition, Steven chooses to play a piece by his mentor for the judges. The point has already been made that this is a solo competition, and that only the finalists will play with accompaniment in the climax. Yet a few bars into the piece, strings are suddenly playing in the background.