Directed By: Philip Ridley
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Clemence Poesy, Noel Clarke, Luke Treadaway, Justin Salinger, Ruth Sheen, Nikita Mistry, Joseph Mawle
Most would think you could never have too many good ideas, however, when you’re trying to pack all of those concepts into just one film, they’ll inevitably flounder. Luckily, writer-director Philip Ridley manages to keep just enough of his plot afloat to make Heartless a worthwhile film, but had he opted to just keep things simple, not only would Heartless be a far better film, but Ridley would still have some of those brilliant ideas to save for later.
Jim Sturgess is Jamie, a seemingly sweet and simple guy, but with one major blemish – literally. Jamie has a heart shaped birthmark covering nearly half of his face that tends to turn quite a few heads. The average person’s tendency to stare and unwillingness to see past the birthmark keeps Jamie from having many friends and, more importantly, a girlfriend. The sole lady in his life is his mother whom he loves dearly. When she’s brutally murdered right in front of him, Jamie winds up becoming even more reclusive and guarded than he was before. That is until he meets Belle and Papa B (Nikita Mistry and Joseph Mawle).
Papa B invites Jamie into his home and offers to give him a better life. All Jamie has to do in return is spray paint a few monstrous faces around the city. Jamie agrees and leaves birthmark-free. He puts his new look to use right away and finds himself falling for Tia (Clemence Poesy). Things are great until the weapons man (Eddie Marsan) shows up at his door. Turns out, Papa B told a little white lie and Jamie owes him far more than some graffiti. In order to escape the wrath of Papa B, Jamie must cut out someone’s heart and place it on the steps of a church by midnight.
No synopsis could do this story justice, no matter how long. In fact, Heartless is really impossible to explain in its entirety. It’s certainly a “you have to see it to believe it” film. The story is quite clever, but winds up becoming too convoluted to fully appreciate. The general idea of a man wishing to be beautiful and making a deal with a devilish character is really all the film needs, however, Ridley, doesn’t stop there. There’s a subplot involving Jamie’s nephew, a secret his new girlfriend is keeping from him, some sort of “old trouble” in Jamie’s life and, to top it all off, otherworldly involvement. While each scenario may be interesting in itself, when combined, they wind up tripping over one another so much so it’s impossible to fully digest all of the material.
On the bright side, this doesn’t do much when it comes to the film’s entertainment value. Everything from the cinematography and set design to the performances is spot on, making Heartless engaging regardless of its confusing story. Ironically, these three particular elements combined have the power to make portions of the film enjoyable to watch and understand even without the audio.
Technical prowess aside, this is Sturgess’ movie. Not only does he perform a significant amount of the film’s appropriately moody soundtrack, but he delivers an all around fantastic performance. After seeing Sturgess in a number of films as the fun loving, good looking, but awkward guy who gets the girl, it’s quite astounding to see him go so dark. Every emotion he conveys whether it be love for Tia or the sheer terror of the atrocity he’s assigned to commit, Sturgess makes you feel what his character feels so strongly that it’s wholly consuming.
Another impressive performance comes from an actor who has just one scene, Marsan. The meeting between Jamie and the weapons man is easily the most profound and memorable of the film. Marsan gives this role 110% and it shows. Even though he completely divulges his agenda for his visit before actually having Jamie do anything, as it plays out, the scene is still incredibly tense. The sensation Marsan is able to create through his dialogue alone is incredibly impressive.
The only issue that may keep Heartless from resonating with some viewers is the fact that Ridley simply bites off a bit more than he could chew. There’s a wide variety of concepts to explore and while they’re all worthy of our time, it’s just impossible to do them all justice in a 114-minute film. If you’ve got no trouble letting Heartless shed its layers and are able to look past the ones that make little sense, you’re guaranteed to appreciate the gems within. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an entirely sensible story you can fully wrap your mind around, you’ll find yourself at a loss here.
By Perri Nemiroff