“The darker it gets the more you see, but it’s got to get a lot darker before you see me.”
I had to watch this again in the end before I felt remotely able to write about it and I’m still unsure of what to say beyond simply knowing this is an incredible movie. This is my first experience of Philip Ridley’s work but on the strength of it I’ll certainly be looking back over his back catalogue, which I’ve heard even more good things about than I did this latest production. When they talked about this movie on the Five Live movie podcast I knew I had to see it because it sounded fascinating… it turned out to be even more so than I even expected.
The most recognisable aspect of the story is the Faust-like “deal with the devil” idea – best done in cinema so far, perhaps, in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart – but to make comparisons between this movie and that is barely touching the surface of the painful depths it goes into with the main character Jamie, played terrifically by Jim Sturgess. Where Parker’s movie blended Faust with film noir, Heartless – with the rest of its cast including the likes of Ruth Sheen and Timothy Spall as Jamie’s parents – feels more like Mike Leigh‘s Faust by way of the recent Harry Brown …and still that doesn’t begin to cover it.
Jamie’s a young man born with a large birthmark on his face that makes him feel like he’ll never be loved as others around him, living in a terror-stricken city that he feels completely unable to deal with. We see scars on his wrists. His father is dead, and in a shocking early scene his mother, too, is taken from him (slight spoiler, sorry; but this is a movie I believe can’t even be spoiled if you’ve seen it 10 times). There seems to be something supernatural afoot, and Jamie in his desperation and sheer loss with the world (Sturgess plays much of his role with an almost bemused expression on his face even at the most horrendous scenarios) finds it all too easy to believe, so when a man steps in claiming he can fix it all with a molotov cocktail, he kinda figures what has he got to lose?
It’s at this point when I first watched the movie that it really and truly grabbed me. For reasons that will be clearer the better you know me, I’m something of a sucker for stories where wishes are granted by supernatural means, and the way Jamie’s “wish” is “granted” here, it’s hard to describe but I believed in it completely. If you hadn’t guessed, his wish entails the good riddance of his birthmark, and the love of an Eastern European girl he met earlier in the movie. If you hadn’t guessed, too, all is still far from as it seems. He gets all that, more, and bizarrely the strange man’s young Indian helper as a daughter… which makes this strange man just a little upset.
This is where I lose my train of thought as to where this review is going, lol. This movie just has so much in it that I won’t even feel like I can adequately sum up my thoughts about it after 5 or 10 viewings. I just know that I will watch it that many times. While the movie is assuredly of the horror genre, and has many spooky, grisly, indeed in places outrightly B-movie outrageous moments, it is also far from – as the title might suggest – heartless. The theme of the movie is torn between the beautiful lyric (from a song sung by Sturgess on the glorious soundtrack) above and the sentiment expressed by Jamie’s new and shortlived neighbour AJ, played by Noel Clarke: “That’s the real bravery. To know nothing means anything and still wanna get out of f**king bed.” The last half hour of the movie changes everything you feel beforehand, and that’s why I needed to watch it again, and I’m still wanting to go back for more. For what it is, it’s a stunning movie, heartfelt, dangerous, and willing to be a little strange. Sturgess is fantastic, and the soundtrack beautiful. You really have to see this movie.