Reviewed on March 9th, 2010
By Jigsaw (contributor) & filed in the Movie Reviews vault
"We all go a little mad sometimes"
“The darker it gets the more you see”
Sometimes being a projectionist has its perks and I was fortunate enough to see Phillip Ridley’s latest feature before its release on May 21st. I didn’t know much about this film going into it other than it being set in the east end of London and carried supernatural elements I wasn’t prepared mentally. This film blew me away.
To label this as a horror film would be an injustice to it as it really defies the conventions of any one genre. This tale twists and turns, rather than jarring things feel natural, they take on a surreal dreamlike quality that remind me of many a David Lynch movie – but far more coherent. Not to worry gore houndss things do take a turn for the macabre.
I’ll try my best to do the storyline justice but it changes as the film progresses and I don’t want to ruin the experience. Jamie lives in the east end of London and was born with a large Heart shaped birth mark across the left side of his face and a large portion of his body. The area recently has been plagued by a spat of murders committed by the local gangs. Jamie discovers one evening this isn’t quite the truth with the hoodies roaming the streets being revealed as demons. With his life spiralling out of control Jamie confronts their leader only to be presented with a choice, carrying serious moral implications.
Cinema works best when you have an emotional investment in the events that transpire on screen. I personally watch movies to take away with me an emotional experience without having to deal with the consequences in real life, similar to going on a amusement park ride to experience danger while all the time knowing you are safe. I have mentioned this before in my reviews that many films today are shallow experiences that focus more on spectacle removing the emotional core. This is not one of those films.
Heartless is deliberately slow paced, we are given the time to get to know the main character that makes all the difference later on. While everyone in this film gives great performances this really is a one man show with Jim Sturgess (as Jamie) practically appearing in every scene. Sturgess gives a subtle performance that really lets you empathise with his character making all that he goes through all the more horrific.
We start with the introduction of Jamie and his family and instantly I was reminded of the Ridley scripted ‘The Krays’. I was expecting to spend a lot of time with these characters who on the outset appear quite an eccentric bunch (I know many people and families like them) but quickly an event happens that changes the whole flow of the film. I won’t say what happens as its best kept as a surprise but the family from this point on only make fleeting appearances allowing us to understand how Jamie ticks as an individual.
I’m not going to go into too much more detail in terms of the plot for fear of spoiling the film but I will cover some minor points. Although there are ‘supernatural’ elements introduced they are downplayed so the focus is constantly on Jamie. This is a good thing, while their part of the tale was interesting I didn’t feel compelled to have to know everything about them – I wanted more time with our antagonist and that’s what I got.
I was extremely impressed with a scene that comes late in the feature. Jamie is forced to complete a task which leads him into luring a rent boy to his house. This scene is complex with all the emotions it’s able to bring out all at once. Becoming a major turning point for the character we, the audience, are left anxious to how it’s going to play out. All the while the rent boy brings the greatest comic relief I have seen in a while but rather than relieving the situation it makes it all the worse as we are drawn to this new character (despite his profession) knowing the tragic end that is looming.
I will say during the whole screening I was on the edge of my seat, this is such a tense flick. Be prepared for a jump in your seat moment that’ll leave your heart in your mouth. It is so sudden and unpredictable that you’ll be sideswiped by it even if your looking for it.
Aside from Jim Sturgess the other actors make lasting impressions even with their limited screen time, including an actor that I usually cannot stand. From my previous review of Doghouse I mention a list of British actors that have no charm. Noel Clarke is one of those actors. Appearing here as Jamie’s next door neighbour he makes a very brief turn that didn’t have me wanting to tear my eyes out. Joseph Mawle as Papa B remains menacing without having to raise his voice and actually convinced me in the need for chaos (no matter how twisted the logic gets). The standout for me was Eddie Marsan as the weapons man who’s quirky performance was far too brief; I could have spent the entire movie with his character.
The film is truly beautiful to look at which is no mean feat considering that it’s set around Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. The streets although dark and grimy have a majestic quality applied to them – it’s hard to believe this is the same place I grew up. This is probably where I may be biased as it was such a joy to see locations that I was so familiar with on screen rather than on a dodgy news report I might see on the local news. On a side note Jamie actually passes by the place I work (where this screening actually took place) in the opening moments. It was a surreal feeling probably drawing me into the events quicker than most.
The special effects were flawless, the best I have ever seen in a British production. The creatures in the hoodies were disturbingly realistic. The moments of violence were far more graphic than I expected them to be occurring with out pulling away from the action. From beating hearts to severed heads it’s all so realistic it’s hard to watch as all great horror should be. A highlight would have to be the graphic burning of a character; the charred mess was chilling and gave me the same feeling as the first time I saw the skinned characters in the original Hellraiser.
The soundtrack helps create the great atmosphere and I’m actually envious of Ridley. Not only did he write and direct but penned some of the most hauntingly beautiful lyrics (The opening quote at the top of this review is from one of the songs), why isn’t talent handed out in equal measurements?
Before we get too gushy there are a few minor flaws. Unfortunately there is a twist ending to the proceedings which I’d rather was left out. This is one of the most overused twists of all time (you’ve probably already worked out what it is) and while the reveal is well handled its all too late – as an audience you will have already figured it out 20 minutes before. Following up on this, while I praised the slower pace in terms of character development at times it can get a little frustrating for people in the audience that watch a lot of movies. As with the twist ending, a multitude of events that occur can be predicted but it takes such a long time getting to the conclusion (you already know is coming) that it can become somewhat frustrating.
As well as this I was never truly sold on the whole romance subplot that appears due to Jamie’s Faustian pact. I felt things moved a little too fast in that regard (the performances were fine) even with the later revelation of why things escalated I just couldn’t sign on with the motivations. I know a lot of these descriptions are quite cryptic but I’m actually trying to protect the potential viewer.
I know this isn’t a film for everyone as the lack of a constant theme could be a strange pill to take for most mainstream filmgoers. On top of this being a British film also does it a disservice; so many people today are already down on our nation’s features before even giving them a chance. There was an announcement at the end of the screening that the film’s release will be simultaneous in cinema screens and on DVD. Personally I don’t see the purpose of releasing a film in this manner (why go to the cinema to watch it now?) but at least I know I can see it again soon. This is not a flawless masterpiece but then again what is? 8/10
Shown as part of Fright Fest 2009.
Many of the interior scenes were filmed on the Isle of Man.
Special effects created by the same department that worked on Avatar.
Director: Philip Ridley
Screenplay: Philip Ridley
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Noel Clarke, Joseph Mawle, Clémence Poésy, Eddie Marsan, Timothy Spall
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