Heartless (2009)


dcnone - Heartless (2009)Reviewed by Gareth Jones

Starring Jim Sturgess, Timothy Spall, Clémence Poésy, Eddie Marsan

Directed by Philip Ridley

After a 14-year hiatus from the big screen since his highly-regarded The Passion of Darkly Noon, British auteur Philip Ridley is back and crashing into the horror genre with his new movie Heartless.

The film follows Jamie (Jim Sturgess), a young man living with his mother in East London. Born with a disfiguring heart-shaped birthmark on his face, Jamie finds it increasingly difficult to fit into society due to constant taunts from local louts and the stares of the general public. Instead, he channels all of his effort into photography and one night gets a glimpse of what appears to be a toothy, demonic face looking out from inside a dilapidated house.

While television news reports describe members of the public being brutally set alight by a gang of Molotov-throwing hooded youths wearing devil masks, Jamie comes to the realisation that they aren’t masks at all – demons dressed in hoodies, the footsoldiers of hell, are flooding London. When his mother is brutally killed and Jamie awakes in hospital he goes in search of vengeance. This leads him to the devilish Papa B (a suitably slimy Joseph Mawle) – the embodiment of Satan himself.

With nobody left to guide or comfort him, Jamie enters into a Faustian pact – his birthmarks will be removed, giving him a chance at a normal life and love, in exchange for some minor acts of chaos. Of course, no deal with the Devil is ever as simple as it seems to be, and soon Jamie is forced into murderous acts of sacrifice. Along the way he meets Tia (Clémence Poésy) and a relationship blossoms – but can Jamie protect her, and indeed himself, from the new world he has entered?

Shot entirely in High Definition, Heartless looks fantastic and even the opening title screen immediately inspires the feeling that you’re about to see something special. Ridley keeps the majority of the film grounded in realist urban sprawl, with Jamie always being a reluctant outsider unsuited to the rough, grim surroundings. His meeting with Papa B takes place in a wonderfully claustrophobic tower block, and this same sense of unease runs consistently throughout the picture.

Each and every member of the cast gives an extremely natural performance, with Jim Sturgess coming out on top. He carries the movie effortlessly, dealing with all of the anger, resentment, happiness and despair that Jamie experiences during his journey.

Sturgess is a ridiculously talented actor and this is without a doubt his finest moment (though his turn as IRA police informant Martin in Fifty Dead Men Walking does come close). Other notables are the brief appearance of Noel Clarke as Jamie’s new neighbour A.J., and Eddie Marsan almost steals the show in a small scene as Weapons Man, the character charged with advising Jamie of his terrible obligations and locating the weapon with which he must fulfil them. Special mention should also go to child actress Nikita Mistry as the demonic cherub Belle. She’s punching well above her weight in the acting world with this role and pulls it off with a skill rarely even seen in most adult thespians.

The creatures themselves are represented with some rather decent CGI – huge, gaping maws which let out an unnatural scream. It’s an unnerving image seeing those faces contained within hooded tops and the final beast seen on-screen stands tall amidst raging fire, its small piercing eyes fixed on Jamie. Heartless is full of these kind of striking images, ensuring you can barely pull your eyes from the screen. Violence and gore in Heartless, of which there is just enough (again, perfectly balanced to suit the story), is used to maximum effect. Jamie’s first sacrifice is extremely graphic and bloody, punctuating the awfulness of what he is forced to commit, and a scene where Papa B shows him just what the consequences of insubordination are is a real toe-curler.

Part of what makes Heartless so special is also the soundtrack. A selection of rock/pop songs were specially written for the movie, and performed by actor Jim Sturgess who also proves here that he has a real talent for singing as well. Unfortunately, the film does make the mistake (albeit briefly) of having the song playing convey the feelings of Jamie while we watch Sturgess lay around and stare forlornly. This is a particular device that I feel simply doesn’t work, but thankfully it only occurs on one instance early on so is easily forgotten.

Heartless had its premiere at this year’s Film4 Frightfest, where director Ridley described it as the “birth of a new genre of horror”. This, it is most certainly not. At its heart, the story itself is the old Faustian Deal backed up with an expertly crafted straddling of horror and fantasy. It also contains one of the most effective jump-scares seen throughout the entire festival. There is, of course, a twist to be found in the tale which adds further impact to the background theme of the danger of gang violence, with the film tapping in excellently to Britain’s current climate of fear regarding out-of-control youths.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ridley, Heartless is not the beginning of, and will not usher in, a new era of horror. What it is, however, is an absolutely fabulous horror-fantasy. Can’t wait for the eventual Blu-Ray.

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4 1/2 out of 5

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