What is fate? Is it a path preordained by the heavens or a recurring crapshoot? More to the point, is true love a product of destiny, or is it a matter of not being able to find your house key, so you blow 20 minutes searching? And after you do lock up, you dash over to Starbucks. And while waiting in line (there's always a line at Starbucks, even when you're the only customer, that much is preordained), you start chatting with the person in front of you, someone who wouldn't have been there 20 minutes earlier, someone who although you don't know it yet five years down the road will share the joys of parenthood with your decaf-latte-sipping self. Yet, who knows, had you arrived at Starbucks earlier, you might have met someone else entirely, someone who likes a completely different blend of beans and foam but with whom you could still spend a lifetime.
In the romantic fantasy Sliding Doors (Miramax/ Paramount), writer-director Peter Howitt demonstrates a lovely feel for the dreamy poetry of what-ifs a deeply satisfying formula for romances and melodramas, from It's a Wonderful Life to Brief Encounter. Having brusquely been fired from her vague public relations job, Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), a limp asparagus spear of a Londoner, mopily heads home to the flat that she shares with her boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch), a would-be novelist. As she sprints to catch the train pulling into the tube station, the doors close: 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. (The 1991 French-Polish romance The Double Life of Veronique fools with the same mysterious metaphysics.) 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 brazen American she-devil of a former girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn); would have booted sorry, two-timing Gerry, given herself an image makeover, launched a successful independent PR business, and taken up with the perfect, adoring James. The other Helen, meanwhile, the one who watched the train pull out, would have missed James, missed opportunities, missed cues about Gerry until it was almost but not quite too late. (She also would have been stuck wearing sad-girl pigtails, the cruelest fate of all.)
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, converging in the one road down which each soul inevitably travels. The director (a former actor making his behind-the-camera debut) leaves it to us to decide whether one is the ''real'' Helen, the other her what-if double or whether both are equally alive. Meanwhile, repeated images of doors sliding open and shut (in an office building, a hospital, etc.) reinforce the theme.
It's clear, of course, who Mr. Right is in this equation: He's the charmer with a sweet smile and 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 (her carefully prepped diction all glottal stops, her slang filled with naughty Brit vocabulary), Helen is such a low-energy heroine, it's hard to believe her enthusiasm for any man. Paltrow's reedy, slightly petulant charms always seem to me to project better in fashion-magazine stills than in motion. Maybe the question we should ponder when not deciding between decaf latte and cappuccino 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.