There’s usually a sweeping sense of optimism that carries forward the arrival of a new British film supported by a selection of industry heavyweights and promising new faces, and new urban British horror Heartless is no exception. Not only does the movie benefit from performances by actors of such pedigree as Timothy Spall, and the fresher faced but increasingly accomplished Noel Clarke, but it is also being released using a new model where the film is available at the cinema, and on DVD, Blu-ray, Video-on-Demand, Rental, and Download-to-Own within the same few days, allowing viewers to select their medium of choice from the growing plethora of technology-driven options. In order to achieve this goal, Lionsgate UK secured Lottery funding from the UK Film Council’s Digital Innovation in Distribution, and are using the model to drive interest to the film via a variety of connected themes, including a social networking-based photography competition.
Sweeping optimism and innovative marketing initiatives don’t necessarily constitute a recipe for quality filmmaking, however, and there have been plenty of examples of British projects of this ilk that just haven’t had the flair of their international competitors. Fortunately, whilst Heartless has some conspicuous flaws, it has enough substance, creativity, and humanity so as to be regarded a success, and the clever combination of younger talent and established stalwarts proves a winning formula.
It’s been a while since Philip Ridley brought his directorial talents to the screen, and it’s clear that his creativity and imagination has been boiling over during this hiatus; Heartless is a gloriously self-indulgent urban Faustian yarn, liberally strewn with classical allusion, symbolism, and metaphor. Yet, simultaneously, this harrowing tale captures enough of the requisite grit and straight-forward shock factor to temper the creative streak which would otherwise have threatened to alienate a considerable chunk of the target audience.
Heartless opens in strangely soothing fashion, with slowly gliding and lingering shots of the East End running against the canvas of a beautiful string-backed score. One of the central metaphorical themes here is quickly very clear; demons are loose on the mean streets of East London, wreaking havoc and engulfing everything in sight in flames. The nefarious nasties are shadowed beneath hoods, and the parallel to the angry, aggressive, and feral British youth speaks loudly. Tortured and confused Jamie – played with a surprisingly emotional intensity by Jim Sturgess – is blighted by a heart-shaped birthmark across one side of his face (and some of his body too), and cuts a bizarre figure of a young man, stalking the dangerous streets of the murky underbelly of London throughout the night, taking photographs and investigating any dubious points of interest. As he is drawn towards the terrifying underworld of the demons – and his painful efforts to make sense of the unfolding horror around him – he enters a literal and metaphorical demise into the ugly bowels of hell to make a seemingly simple, but ultimately terrifying pact with the diabolical Papa B, portrayed in gloriously devilish fashion by Joseph Mawle.
It feels like a well-worn premise, yet this is a journey of a very modern ilk, and Jamie is drawn towards his hellish covenant by the most modern of mechanisms – an iPhone, a tower block, and a lift. Shortly before, his short-lived friendship with kind ex-gang member neighbour AJ, characterised impressively by Noel Clarke, gave Jamie an insight into the impending spiralling demise, as AJ dubiously informs Jamie that he has ‘seen the future…and it is a kingdom of horror’. And a kingdom of horror is truly unleashed, playing out as a morbid urban fairytale, and providing plenty of jumps, dubious intrigue, and a surprising level of depth, underpinned by some stunning effects and largely impressive CGI.
Acting talent is richly evident across the board, with notable performances not only from the aforementioned Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, and Noel Clarke, but also from veteran Timothy Spall, the entrancing and beautiful love interest Tia (Clémence Poésy), little Nikita Mistry, who plays Papa B’s dinky assistant Belle with a grace and interpretation that is beyond her relatively modest years, and the delightful Eddie Marsan, who plays the intimidating Weapons Man with a perfect balance of menace and dark humour.
Heartless is a modern, urban, Faustian tale that transpires to be a British horror epic of considerable impact. The cast, both old and new, deliver some compelling performances, and the grisly horror and shock elements provide a level of entertainment that balances the level of symbolism and metaphor which may otherwise have been something of a turn off for many. It’s certainly not flawless; there are moments which can feel overtly sentimental, the demented fairytale plot and rich classical allusions can feel a little pretentious, the essence of the climax may feel a little predictable, and Ridley – perhaps as a result of his time away from the director’s chair - creates a gloriously self-indulgent product which is clearly evident from a running time which overstays its welcome by perhaps 15 minutes or so. Yet, for all of that, the expanse of ideas, the emotional depth, the high quality of the filmmaking, and the gripping portrayal of Jamie’s demise, combines to present a British horror film which can stand proud as a flawed but worthy entry alongside its national and international horror peers.
Shot on a high definition Genesis camera (apart from some limited scenes shot on steadycam), and presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film looks and feels stunning. Definition is unerringly strong and the clarity sharp. Ridley’s striking use of the colour palette is presented in accurate fashion, and the copious dark scenes are pictured with solid blacks balanced with shrewd lighting that ensures we can always see the horrific action. As you might expect, the transfer is extremely clean, with no noise or distortion, and motion is captured with suitable accuracy.
The single disc presentation is encoded for region 2.
There are English Hard of Hearing subtitles.
Audio is very well served with Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. From the opening sequences, the beautiful string-based score indicates the quality of the aural delivery, which is crystal clear and rich in depth. Dialogue is very clear and defined, and the jumps are underpinned perfectly with levels that are balanced to provide maximum shock, whilst not proving artificial. Surround sound and spacing is impressive, and the mental troubles of Jamie are regularly present with the constant sounds of London bubbling away beneath the surface of the dialogue and action.
Whilst the extras may not seem enormous on paper, the release is actually very well served. There’s a theatrical trailer (in addition to a handful of trailers for other releases), a couple of not especially inspiring live music videos of songs from the film, and some photo galleries that present Ridley’s photography of East London that provided the foundation upon which he built the perverse fairytale.
The ‘Dynamite Sky: Making of…’ featurette is cut very basically, and is initially formed by some rough and ready interviews with the director and cast. Despite the straightforward approach, the interviews – mainly brief – present some interesting dimensions to the movie and its production. The featurette really picks up the pace with a ‘B-roll’ section which lends a ‘fly on the wall’ view of the film making process. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the section where a stuntman is set on fire for what appears to be a morbidly long period of time, but he is the consummate professional and burns away happily! There is a fairly long section showing the filming out in the park, and whilst it’s a pleasant enough insight into the filming process, it becomes a little tedious.
The featurette finishes on a high with some excellent audition material showing the considerable skills of Jim Sturgess and Nikita Mistry.
Best of all is Philip Ridley’s solitary director’s commentary. He talks through the film in incredible detail from start to finish, barely pausing for breath, and provides a rich accompaniment and deconstruction for the many layers of this intriguing film – such as the fact that the film is colour-coded. I can’t recommend the commentary enough – it’s a real treat that enhances the viewing experience on a second viewing.
With some intriguing and engaging extras, and a rich visual and aural presentation, this multi-format release of a flawed but multi-layered new British horror epic is highly recommended viewing, whichever format you happen to select.