Philip Ridley is an artist, writer, and “occasional” filmmaker (three features in 20 years, so he’s hardly making a living at it). The Reflecting Skin, his 1990 directorial debut, remains his best-known movie (few people remember The Passion of Darkly Noon, five years later), and among the cognoscenti, Heartless was eagerly anticipated.
Released several weeks ago on multiple “platforms” in the UK (cinemas as well as PlayStation online), Heartless has received mixed critical reviews. Expecting more from Ridley, some critics felt the movie was “just” a conventional horror film, and thus a disappointment. Others discerned deeper currents below the slick and relatively familiar surface (the title, theme, and style prompted comparisons to Alan Parker’s Angel Heart), and still others weren’t pleased with it on either level, as popular entertainment or thought-provoking cinematic art.
I’ve mixed emotions, though I think Heartless succeeds on the basic, “popular” level. It’s interesting, well-acted (some bravura turns, including Jim Sturgess in the lead, young Nikita Mistry as a little girl-ghost, and a hilarious one-scene tour-de-force from Eddie Marsan), nicely photographed and edited, and has a rather sweet and satisfying conclusion. Beware, there is one major gore scene (the extracting of a still-beating heart from a saran-wrapped male prostitute), though—in the perverse way of films today—nudity is implied several times but actually “showing anything” is studiously avoided.
Is there more to it, though? Yes, but…perhaps it’s not worked out as well as it could have been. The film, which runs about 15 minutes short of two hours, has a leisurely pace for the first third, picks up a bit (still wanders aimlessly at times, though) in the second act, and rushes along in the final segment, throwing in a not-very-interesting twist or two. A film doesn’t have to have just one “point,” but Heartless tries to cover so many bases: it’s about self-image and the value society places on physical attractiveness, about “broken Britain,” about deals with the Devil, about the redemptive power of love, about family, about existential angst and the meaning of life. Oh, and it’s about needle-toothed, hoodie-wearing, molotov-cocktail slinging demons. Don’t want to forget those.
Jamie lives in East London and works in a photography studio (his late father was a professional photographer—in one scene, Jamie says “digital is like a rough sketch, whereas film’s like a Caravaggio”). His life has been blighted (scars on his wrist and some allusions in the dialogue hint at a history of clinical depression) by large “port wine” birthmarks on his face, neck and shoulder. Interestingly enough, while these are quite noticeable, they don’t seem unusual enough to provoke the mocking shouts of Jamie’s neighbours—those people must be really sensitive! He’s not the Elephant Man, for heaven’s sake! By suggesting Jamie’s disfigurement is so horrible—rather than emphasizing his internal feelings of unattractiveness—Ridley lessens the emotional conflict and halfway justifies Jamie’s decision halfway through the movie.
If the film had spent more time analysing Jamie’s diminished self-image and the effect it had on his life, his later actions might have been more believable. True, in one revealing scene he tells a new friend: “I can’t imagine what it would be like to meet someone I like, and to actually think they might be interested in me…it feels like I’ve got this parallel life. I’ve got this life I’m living, where people look at me and they call me names…I’ve got this other life…and in that life, I meet like a beautiful girl…we get married, have a nice house, and have a kid…and a chance to be a good dad, like my Dad was to me.” This is all good stuff, but again, Ridley takes half-measures, giving Jamie a birthmark rather than a more horrifyingly obvious deformity, and yet having (some) people react to it as if it were shocking. Perhaps (to give the director credit for subtlety which may have eluded me), Heartless intends to suggest those who treat Jamie differently don’t really exist (or exist only in his mind, or in the past), since his friends, family, and acquaintances (even shopkeepers) don’t avert their eyes when they see him.
Be that as it may, a series of murders have been occuring in Jamie’s neighborhood. Gang members burn innocent people to death, including Jamie’s mum (his neighbor and new friend A.J. is also killed, but dismembered rather than immolated). Jamie meets the sinister Papa B and his slave, a young Indian girl named Belle. Papa B, a devilish sort of fellow (hint, hint), offers to cure Jamie’s face in exchange for some harmless “disruption,” since Papa B loves chaos, fear, and violence. Jamie (rather too cavalierly) agrees, and one full-body (but non-fatal) burn later, he peels off his crusty shell and is reborn as a handsome, birthmark-less young man, who promptly meets and falls in love with the charmingly-accented Tia.
Ah, but a visit from the “Weapons Man” shows Jamie he’s been tricked (no!) by Papa B. Instead of harmless fun (spraying graffiti on walls, for instance), Jamie’s got to kill someone, extract their heart, and deposit it on the front steps of a nearby church…by midnight! The rest of the film follows a mostly-conventional path, as Jamie tries to renegotiate (or nullify) the bargain. There aren’t too many surprises here, though the whole thing generally unfolds in a slick and efficient manner (alright, there are some loose ends and unexplained aspects, and the “twist” towards the end involving Tia doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny).
On the positive side, Ridley clearly had a plan, and the pieces fit together nicely, subtly, even elegantly at times. Jamie’s “parallel” life with a beautiful “wife,” “house,” and “daughter”—predicated on his physical attractiveness—comes true in a way (Belle is his surrogate daughter, Tia his “wife,” and their “house” is his apartment—though Belle creates a model of a home surrounded by a picket fence, etc.), but at what cost? Other repeated motifs include fire, the matter of Jamie’s father, various manifestations of “heart” (art of the sacred heart of Jesus, the prostitute’s heart, the heart-shape of Jamie’s facial birthmark), and so on.
It’s unfair to criticise a film because it isn’t what I’d like it to have been. I suppose it’s fair game to say, however, Heartless could have gone down any one of a number of paths, but insteads veers around from one to another. We get to our destination eventually, but we took neither the scenic route nor the fastest route, but a little of both.
Still, I have to say I enjoyed the film. There are some heartfelt and touching scenes, some excellent performances, and a few really nice dialogue passages.