4.5 out of 10

Release Date: 21st May 2010

Director: Phillip Ridley (The Reflecting Skin / The Passion Of Darkly Noon)

Cast: Jim Sturgess, Clemence Poesy, Noel Clarke, Luke Tredaway, Joseph Mawle, Ruth Sheen, Jack Gordon, Nikita Mistry with Eddie Marsan and Timothy Spall

Writer: Phillip Ridley


heartless_xlgSometimes I watch the dull, endless succession of British films that make up the roster of this site’s unremitting remit, and I wonder at the staleness, the lack of variety, the sheer ennui, the absolute hopelessness of imagination that these films both display and embody. The found-footage horrors, the hooligenre, those deeply incompetent Essex boys. And then I chanced upon a film in which Noel Clarke’s beheaded head gets treated like an apple by the human embodiment of the devil and suddenly I realised there’s life in the British film industry yet. Though that doesn’t mean HEARTLESS is a good film. Actually I’m not sure what it is.

I think it’s meant to be a visionary fable, a powerful drama about grief, acceptance, difference and wrapping male prostitutes in clingfilm. It’s also a mess, a film whose reality is just that little bit too far removed from real reality to make its reality cinematically real (that makes perfect sense in my head) so the supernatural / mythic elements don’t jar as they should. In short, it’s meant to be a film where demonic lizard-people stalking the streets is a disconcerting, terrifying and thoroughly out of kilter thing, but it actually seems perfectly credible. Admittedly, making a film where the devil lives down the road is difficult enough without trying to make that fact unlikely.

I think this might be a bit confusing. So here’s the story and some sarcastic comments instead.

Jim Sturgess plays Jamie, an amateur photographer with a heart-shaped birthmark covering much of his face. He’s a good lad who helps his mum (Ruth Sheen stealing scenes as usual) and his brother with his photographic studio. (Photography is strong in this family.) And then there’s their long-dead dad, played in a couple of flashbacks by Timothy Spall on fine understated form (maybe a bit too sentimentally perhaps – but we’re seeing a memory not reality). And then there’s little Luke Treadaway in an early role playing Jamie’s tearaway nephew. Despite this Mike Leigh-style family (indeed, that’s probably the whole point), Jamie lives in a world of malevolent spirits. Or are they just hoodie-clad teens? No – they actually are physical denizens on holiday from Hell and causing a ruckus in the less salubrious wastes of East London. As if that isn’t bad enough, Noel Clarke (curiously ill at ease) is his Rilke-spouting next-door neighbour.

After the demons murder Jamie’s mum (part of a Satanic plan), our silly hero does a deal with the devil, and somehow ends up adopting a young girl (who only Jamie can see like in Randall and Hopkirk Deceased) who may or may not be the devil’s familiar. As part of the deal Jamie has to commit a murder, details of which are passed on by the Weapons Man, a Pinteresque creation which gives Eddie Marsan a mad cameo which throws the film’s relationship with reality even further out of focus, but no matter because it’s always good to have a mad Marsan cameo. This leads to the film’s oddest scene where Jamie encounters a male prostitute who doesn’t seem too averse to being mummified in clingfilm. I lead a sheltered life; if that’s the sort of thing people get up to (and if we can have a prime minister porking

pork then I suppose anything can happen involving kitchen materials) then who am I to offer incredulity? The problem of course though is that it’s impossible to look anything other than stupidly funny when cocooned in clingfilm, which diminishes a scene which is meant to be at the heart of the story (semi-pun intended seeing as hearts are really important in this film).

The devilish deed done, Jamie loses his birthmark and gains a French starlet girlfriend. But Jamie perhaps doesn’t know the laws of Faustian pacts, and finds himself embroiled in skulduggery, mayhem and the ineluctable yet capricious force of fate.

HEARTLESS was made by Philip Ridley, who I guess is a kind of semi-avant-garde writer/director who seems to have fallen out with the establishment at some point. Being made by a serious artist means we have to accept some ridiculous plot points (especially the twist near the end) and get lots of themes and motifs shoved down our throats so that we know we’re watching a serious film and not some zombie/slasher hokum: hearts, family, religious iconography, long speeches about the necessity of evil, that sort of thing. There are even some songs along the way to jolly things along underline Jamie’s fragile mental state. There is some arresting imagery: the bit where our hero is wreathed in a body suit of his own burnt flesh whilst sipping a cup of tea; the clingfilm; Jamie’s birthmarked face. Unfortunately too often the idea seems to be let down by the realisation (especially when special effects are involved).

As a morality tale it’s a tad harsh, basically saying if you do dodgy deals you’ll be hideously eviscerated and become morally vacuous. And I guess it’s also meant to be an examination on the role of violence in our bitter, fragmented society, but it’s done in such an exaggerated way that Ridley’s points get a bit lost (it’s as if he’s doing a News of the World saying ‘shocking depraved disgustingness! Come and see it!’) But despite some good setting up and some thoughtful discussions and some excellent scenes, the last portion of the film veers off into blowing-things-up territory and the silliness goes unchecked. It redeems itself a little with a beautiful coda, but it’s not enough to undo the feeling that the film has spiralled out of control, ending up as a chaotic adult fairy-tale with uninspiring conclusions

This film is not as clever, powerful, thoughtful, bold and exciting as it thinks it is. And that’s a shame, because had they got it anywhere near right it could have been something astonishing. Instead it’s just a rehash of stuff like The Monkey’s Paw with a decorative layer of urban grime gently sprinkled on top.

Review by Joe Pesci II aka Matt Usher



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