Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
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"Beauty is the beginning of terror."  From that line of poetry/exposition, there is a bit of a promise (and a warning) of things to come in Philip Ridley's dark fairy tale, Heartless.  Starting out as a grim London East Side drama about the inward shyness of a young man (Across The Universe's Jim Sturgess) with heart-shaped purple splotch (a birth defect of sorts) on the side of his face.  His life seems to be on hold in comparison to his family-man older brother and his screwed up gangster little brother.  His mother and father are both played by Mike Leigh regulars (Ruth Sheen and Timothy Spall), so you get the grim realism and graffiti strewn environments of down the class-ladder neighborhoods often featured in that particular brand of British cinema.  Then there is a roving gang of hoodie hoodlums who (Mimic style) seem to be some sort of bipedal demonic insects killing folks in the neighborhood.  By the time Eddie Marsan saunters into the apartment as a larger-than-life bureaucrat/weaponsman toting a laptop, a set of 'legal conditions' precipitated from a pact with possibly the devil and a few weapons recommendations, the film has enough tonal-plates tossed into the air that the whole enterprise should come down in a large clatter.  But, miraculously it does not.  Outside of South Korean cinema (or perhaps The Coen Brothers), this sort of thing is so rarely successful and here it is a bit of a revelation.  

The one thing that keeps James from becoming an agoraphobic shut-in is his photography.  It actually emboldens him to walk around in some dangerous neighborhoods at night (either that or he fancies himself more or less invisibly non-descript) and it provides an in for the gorgeous girl he spots doing a modeling shoot in the studio he borrows the dark-room from.  When he begins to see manifestations of some sort of sharp-toothed demons in both his photographs and motifs scrawled in the neighborhoods graffiti he is not exactly sure what to do other than shrivel further inward.  Ridley uses jump-scares not in the fashion of the usual horror movie, where someone wanders down a dark tunnel (these scenes are in the film, but played opposite) rather he uses it to reflect the main characters state of mind:  Jumpy.  It was a welcome, even savvy, use of a technique that too often is used out of laziness or the need to keep the audience aware the something is happening.   The director here is delivering an unorthodox film made out of somewhat familiar pieces all juggled around and turned inside out.  Eventually, James encounters Papa B, a mutant gangster for which the B may be the initial of Beelzebub who offers to remove the heart-shaped birthmark for a 'small price.'  Not just playing to James vanity or a 'quick solution and all will be better' Papa B offers a variation on the cuckoo-clock speech in The Third Man playing to James artistic side, "Violence is the engine of progress" both in art and in humanity.  Things go to hell, often literally, from there.

Visually, the film fluctuates from posh cinematography to sickly lit green and yellow interiors.  There are numerous playful uses of heart imagery, from the obvious (birthmark) and framing a victim in a heart of spray paint to the more subtle webbed pair of fingers on Papa B.  It reminds me of the way that the Coen Brothers use the hat imagery (and in the dialogue) of Miller's Crossing.  Even the music in Heartless (songs written by the director) seems to be driving the plot and the meaning of the film, but, refreshingly, things seem to not be in a mad-dash to get there.  From James' relationship with the model to some of the dark deeds his character is driven/coerced/threatened to perform all take its time to sink you into the icky-sweet morass of the films morality.  Ridley is a jack-of-all-trades artist:  An author of both novels and children's books, photographer, painter, performance artist, playwright and director of three offbeat films including this one, all including dark super-natural overtones.

Heartless belies easy classification, yet remains down-to-earth in execution mainly from the collection of wonderful (even offbeat) performances of his cast.  Sturgess, on screen in just about every single scene, is wonderfully low-key yet offers the set of strength (and gruesome muster) that any downtrodden hero in a Brothers Grimm tale should possess.  Eddie Marsan absolutely steals the movie in his single scene that, well, positively crackles with energy.  Timothy Spall, usually playing cretinous henchmen in Hollywood blockbusters or 5-O'Clock shadow sad-sacks in his native England plays against type as a wonderful caregiver (the dead father in flashback) who encouraged his sons self-esteem through unconditional love and whose untimely departure probably created some of the current abyss.  His character is afforded scan screen-time, but is the lynchpin of the film.  A dark message that will most definitely put off a mainstream audience, in order to truly appreciate all the good things in your life, you have to lose them utterly; being lost in that dark forest is actually a blessing.  On an emotional level, Heartless is indeed terribly beautiful.
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More about Heartless

Ben UmsteadAugust 23, 2010 4:30 PM

Another fine review on this one. I was pretty sold long ago, but wonder when it'll make it over the border in NA. Any word on a release?

Andrew MackAugust 23, 2010 7:53 PM

Thank you Kurt for writing this up because for the life of me I couldn't do it. I couldn't get past how cliche riddled his story was. Rarely do I come out of a screening as frustrated/discouraged as I did this one. Of all the films at TADFF that I could make it to this was the one film that I was looking forward the most and it was the most disappointing for me. Visually? Stunning. Story? Poor.

Kurt HalfyardAugust 23, 2010 9:09 PM

This one really polarized the folks I talked to at the festival. I am firmly in the LOVE camp on the film. It wasn't that the film didn't traffic in cliches, it was that it found a way to make the swirl of very familiar elements into something exciting, thought provoking, and evocative. I'm also a sucker for the father/son stuff. But the film looked great, the acting was incredible. This one is approaching Pan's Labyrinth territory of adult fairy tale - and it is not afraid to scare the crap out of its audience for much of its running time. Furthermore, Jim Sturgess' character was quite complicated, morally ugly at times, but still likable - hard to pin him down really. I like genre films with this level of sophistication and subtly.