FILM REVIEW: Heartless (2010)

Heartless (UK, 2010)
Directed by Philip Ridley

Starring Jim Sturgess, Noel Clarke, Clemence Poesy, Joseph Mawle

With the exception of John Landis, Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick, there are few directors who can go more than ten years between films and still deliver the magic. But now Philip Ridley can be added to that illustrious list with Heartless, which comes fifteen years after his mesmerising fairy tale, The Passion of Darkly Noon.It doesn't take long to realise that Heartless is something very special. Its visuals are superb, capturing the East End of London as something both gritty and fantastical - think Michael Powell meets Kidulthood by way of Guillermo Del Toro. The familiar shots of council estates, graffiti and street lamps are married to eerie backstreets, dark alleyways and a blood-red sunrise, as if the natural and the supernatural were intertwined in a dance of death. But it's not just the streets that ripple with the unreal: Papa B's flat in a disused tower block resembles the Pale Man's dining room in Pan's Labyrinth.Heartless is a film in which fantasy and reality violently collide, in which demons and the forces of evil are not just coexisting with real life, but infiltrating and manipulating it. The film owes a great debt to the story of Faustus, with Joseph Mawle's sepulchral Papa B standing in for the Devil and a dead-pan, no-nonsense Eddy Marsden channelling Mephistopheles as Weapons Man.But although it shares the central premise and morals of Faustus - you can do anything you like, but be careful what you wish for - the film departs from the legend in the precise relationship between the Devil and his eventual prey. Jamie, played brilliantly by Jim Sturgess, does not inherit or possess any of the palpable magic that Faustus does when he signs over his soul. In fact, he gets much more of a rum deal, becoming as much a victim as everyone around him. Rather than being able to channel demonic power to live his life the way he wants, his life is at the mercy of chaos, and through his life the Devil's aim of greater horror and panic becomes reality.Heartless is suffused with Ridley's trademark blend of religious allegory and fairy tales, a combination that is every bit as seamless as the visual marriage of magic and grittiness. As a genre piece, the film is an interesting pairing of the streetwise dialogue of Kidulthood (a fair comparison considering the presence of Noel Clarke) with the more poetic sensibilities of Guillermo Del Toro or Clive Barker. It begins unevenly as all these unlikely elements struggle to weave together, but it doesn't take long for the effect to become hypnotic.

Because of its links to horror artists and directors, Heartless references a number of individual horror films; Ridley takes the various touches which crop up and re-forges them into something new. The character of She, a heavily tattooed gangster with a claw for one hand, hints back to the killer in Candyman: as in both Clive Barker's story and the film by Bernard Rose, the character is either the physical vessel of some supernatural evil or one of the keys to determine where the characters' sanity lies. There are also strong references to A Nightmare on Elm Street, particularly the Freddie Krueger slashes across AJ's chest and the scenes of Jamie being hurled violently against the ceiling by an unseen evil.But by far the closest companion to Heartless is Ridley's previous film, The Passion of Darkly Noon. Both revolve around central characters with a deeply warped view of the world: Darkly Noon is a young man indoctrinated into a fundamentalist Christian cult, and Jamie is implied to have a history of mental illness. Christian imagery is prominent in both films: Jamie's house is full of icons belonging to his late mother, and in Papa B's flat the lampshades on the walls cast shadows resembling the shape of a cross.

Both Heartless and The Passion of Darkly Noon begin on relatively realistic ground and then pull us headlong into a terrifying world which is equal parts fairy tale, horror and fantasy. In the case of Darkly Noon (featuring a career-best performance by Brendan Fraser), what starts off as a story about indoctrination and a blinkered worldview that stunts development turns into a Grimm's fairy tale about sex, witchcraft and a climactic clash of ideals which is worthy of The Wicker Man. We begin believing that one side is deluded, then the other side, until eventually we don't know who to trust and have to just lose ourselves in it.While Heartless never quite reaches the levels of transcendent, euphoric terror which Ridley achieved there, Jamie doesn't exactly make it easy for us. There are any number of terrifying, earth-shattering moments which will make even the seasoned horror fun curl into the foetal position and pray for it to end.

The most terrifying of these comes where Jamie has to stab a male prostitute and cut out his heart while he is still alive. Having chosen his victim and brought him back to his flat, Jamie reluctantly wraps him in cling-film in what his victim perceives to be an elaborate homosexual ritual. When Jim Sturgess pulls out the knife and we hear the hooker's muffled screams, we are thrust right into the horror that character is experiencing; we tense up and start to panic, desperate to escape and yet knowing we can't look away.Scenes like this are cleverly counterpointed by imagery which occurs earlier in the film. The precise demands placed upon Jamie regarding the nature of the murder are a symbol of his own status: he must cut out the heart of another, for he no longer has a heart himself. While he is more than capable of physical or erotic love, his desire for friendship and platonic love is ebbing away. The cling-filming is counterpointed by the beautiful moment of Jamie emerging from the cocoon of his own burnt flesh, with his heart-shaped birthmark nowhere to be seen.One of the key images in Heartless is that of fire and immolation. Ridley shoots flame like another character, with its own personality and powers. Just as there is a double meaning to hearts in the film, so fire is the means of both our hero's transformation and destruction. When Papa B hands him the Molotov cocktail and Jamie sets himself alight, the fire is cleansing him of his old self, like a furnace removing impurities from metal. But in the final scene, fire becomes the means to briefly reunite with his dead father - only in destruction does Jamie realise what he truly wanted and whom he truly loved.The one real flaw with Heartless is its big final twist, in which we are shown what was real and what was not. On the one hand, it works brilliantly, with all the different parties corresponding to figures in the real world, and it does deliver a sucker punch as we realise what Jamie has actually done. But there's still something unsatisfying about it in the same way that Shutter Island was unsatisfying. Because of the way the film is played, it has to come down on one side or the other, when as with Scorsese's work the more radical and haunting choice would have been to leave us hanging.
Despite this quibble, Heartless is a truly great film and a welcome return to the big screen for Philip Ridley. While it never quite lives up to The Passion of Darkly Noon, it is a really stunning piece of work with haunting visuals and brilliant performances. Jim Sturgess excels in the central role, amply supported by gripping turns from Noel Clarke and Joseph Mawle, whose scene together on the rooftop is really harrowing. One only hopes we don't have to wait another 15 years for Ridley to return to our screens.

Rating: 4.5/5

Verdict: Mesmerising, magical, macabre and memorable


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