Is fate a path pre-ordained by the heavens, or a recurring crapshoot? In the romantic fantasy “Sliding Doors,” writer-director Peter Howitt demonstrates a lovely feel for the dreamy poetry of What-Ifs — always a deeply satisfying formula for romances and melodramas. Having been fired from her vague public-relations job, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), a limp asparagus spear of a Londoner, mopily heads home to the flat she shares with her boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch). As she sprints to catch the train pulling into the tube station, the doors slide shut: She?s too late.
But what if, in that split second, Helen had made it aboard? The film rewinds, readjusts, the doors of possibility slide open. One Helen, the one who boarded the train, would have met fellow commuter James (John Hannah); would have come home in time to catch Gerry in bed with his American she-devil of a former girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn); would have booted sorry, two-timing Gerry, launched a successful independent PR business, and taken up with the perfect, adorable, adoring James. The other Helen, meanwhile, the one who watched the train pull out, would have missed James, and missed cues about Gerry until it was almost — but not quite –too late.
Such is the supple structure of “Sliding Doors” that Version 1 of Helen?s life constantly crosses paths with Version 2; in the end, Howitt suggests, we are the merge and morph of every possibility.
It?s clear, of course, who Mr. Right is in this equation: He?s the charmer with the succulent Scottish accent first heard here when Hannah recited W.H. Auden in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Certainly Helen?s intended isn?t the indecisive, inarticulate lout portrayed by Lynch (“Some Mother?s Son”) — although if Gerry and James had been more fairly matched, the ante would have been raised far more enticingly. But then, as played by Paltrow, Helen is such a low-energy heroine, it?s hard to believe her enthusiasm for any man. The unaddressed What If, then, is whether James might have lived a more wonderful life had a different bird landed in the seat next to his as the doors slid shut.