Heartless (2009)

Heart of glass

More gritty psychological drama than blood-soaked chiller, Heartless was a somewhat surprising inclusion in the lineup for the 2009 Frightfest horror festival. Even more unexpected, then, that it should prove to be one of the standout highlights of the whole weekend. And with its intelligent, gripping story, brilliant performances and assured direction, it’s one of the best British films you’ll see this year.

The life of young photographer Jamie (Sturgess) has been dominated by the huge heart-shaped birthmark he has across his face. Isolated and wary of outsiders, Jamie’s fears seem founded when he sees demonic creatures -disguising themselves as hoodies – roaming the streets of East London after dark. After one of these gangs murder his mother, Jamie is summoned to a meeting with the mysterious Papa B (Joseph Mawle); a man who promises that, if Jamie agrees to repay the favour, he will remove the birthmark. Agreeing out of desperation, Jamie is soon living a happy life with beuatiful new girlfriend Tia (Clemence Poesy) but, when the Weapons Man (Eddie Marsan) comes a knocking, he realises he may have paid too high a price.

It’s been 15 years since writer/director Philip Ridley delivered his last film, The Passion of Darkly Noon, but Heartless has  been worth the wait. A film that’s difficult to pin down in terms of its tone or genre, its narrative is ambitious and sprawling, deliberately defying conventions of genre as it touches on ideas of mortality, identity and paranoia. And if it seems haphazard well, it’s intentional; when the film finally reveals its true face, the shifts in tone and rule-bending become clear.

By its very nature, Heartless is a film that will divide opinion but, for those who are prepared to throw caution to the wind and go along for the ride, it’s an intriguing, complex and truly memorable experience.

5 stars

This review was originally published in movieScope Issue 17, which is out now. The issue also has Jim Sturgess on the cover and interviews with Heartless director Philip Ridley and cinematographer Matt Grey.

Stars Jim Sturgess, Clemence Posey, Joseph Mawle
Director & Screenplay Philip Ridley
Certificate 18
Distributor Lions Gate
Running Time 1hr 53mins
Opens May 21 (also released on DVD, Blu-ray, Download to Own and Video on Demand on May 24)