Judge Daniel Kelly is liverless.
The darker it gets the more you see.
I'm not entirely sure what to make of Philip Ridley's Heartless, a visually stunning but otherwise baffling macabre drama. Ridley, who has been out of the directorial game for 15 years, guides the project with technical assurance, but the screenplay is extraordinarily messy. The first half of the movie benefits from artful design, a creepy sense of impending danger and some solid performances, but sadly as Ridley starts to fully unravel his tale it all goes to the dogs.
Jamie (Jim Sturgess, 21) is a timid and reclusive soul, a man removed from society due to a large heart shaped birthmark on his face. When Jamie's mother is savagely killed by a group of snarling youths, Jamie grows restless, ready to go out into the world and claim vengeance. In steps Papa B (Joseph Mawle, Made in Dagenham), an agent of Satan who explains to Jamie that such acts of violence are necessary to keep mankind ticking over. He then proceeds to strike a deal, he will remove Jamie's overbearing scar, if in return, the lonely lad will commit a murder on his behalf. Jamie reluctantly agrees, his fresh complexion giving him a new lease of life, and allowing him to bond with Tia (Clemence Poesy, 127 Hours). However Papa B eventually returns looking for further help from Jamie, leaving him to ponder if beauty is worth a life of relentless bloodshed.
Every shot in Heartless is meticulously crafted, packed with beautiful cinematography and a true sense of atmosphere. The film isn't a soulless endeavor; instead, it's powered by a strong emotional undercurrent. Thanks to some good performances and Ridley's own command of the human condition, this facet of the picture operates smoothly, it's just a shame the same can't be said for the storytelling.
The film's dour style captures Jamie's sense of despair effectively, Ridley concocting a gritty world peppered with moments of extreme evil. The movie clearly wants to be a sort of horrific fairytale, combining the supernatural with the mundane to create its overarching premise. However all good fairytales tend to have an obvious message or sense of purpose, both of which Heartless lacks. The film plods through its final act with little precision or insight, Ridley instead content to bombard audiences with beautiful images, rather than a preferable dose of poignancy. By its conclusion the narrative has become intensely muddled, the slim and haunting mystery of the opening 30 minutes having been abandoned in favor of picturesque anarchy.
Sturgess is perfectly okay, the British actor moping around with a genuine aura of sadness surrounding him. I'm not sure he's the most flexible performer in the world, but for the purposes of Heartless he's fine. The supporting cast is a little more excitable, talented folks like Noel Clarke (Adulthood), Eddie Marsan (Hancock), and the aforementioned Mawle doing lively and engaging work. Clemence Poesy continues to confuse me, for a woman with so many major credits at such a young age she remains remarkably wooden. It's her listless contribution that kills the romantic subplot here.
The DVD is an interesting disc, a well formed and talky selection of bonus features helping to decode the frenzied final product. The commentary from Ridley is a useful tool (especially for dazed viewers like myself), explaining the various plot machinations and themes with detail and care. It doesn't make the picture itself any better, but it at least gives a stronger indication of what Ridley was attempting to achieve. A robust making of is also included, as are a selection of shorter and more throwaway featurettes. One involving audience reactions following a screening of Heartless almost enters parody, nobody has a bad word to say about the project. Finally, two live musical performances from Sturgess are also available. They're surprisingly good.
It's a Hung Jury. Evidence is inconclusive either way.
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