Blu-Review: Heartless

Directed By Philip Ridley
Starring Jim Sturgess, Clémence Poésy and Noel Clarke


A young photographer isolated from the world and rendered cripplingly shy due to a disfiguring heart-shaped birthmark on his face, Jamie (Sturgess) is a man struggling to make sense of the chaotic, near-apocalyptic London streets that surround him. As escalating gang violence swarms the city and a crew of hoodie-clad, ravenous teens in demon masks begin committing senseless molotov-aided murders, Jamie’s mother is brutally killed. Soon after, Jamie is summoned to a dilapidated block of flats by the imposing, enigmatic and equally disfigured Papa B., who has a tempting deal to offer. Anything Jamie wishes can be his, and all he has to do is bring a little chaos to the world in the form of some harmless graffiti. His birthmarks removed and with the affections of a beautiful woman (Poésy), Jamie’s living the life he always dreamed. Unfortunately for him, Faustian deals have more hidden terms and conditions than a new credit card contract, and it’s not long before he has to resort to more sinister means to maintain his new perfect life.

Tackling commendable and potent themes like the importance of inner beauty in an overwhelmingly superficial world, or the increasingly chaotic and frightening nature of cities plagued by escalating senseless violence and crime, Ridley takes a foundation rife with potential for social commentary, but unfortunately doesn’t have nothing especially original to say. There’s little subtlety in Ridley’s quite literal demonization of teen thugs, nor is there a great deal of originality in the message; a little too late to the punch, Ridley retreads ground covered not too long ago by Brit shockers Eden Lake and Harry Brown, and while Heartless is no more exploitative, it often stoops to the same lazy heavy-handed moralising those films were guilty of. The ‘beauty is only skin deep’ morality play at work, echoing Beauty and The Beast, is also rather one-note, and suffers from the often muddled script; as Jamie leaps to choose a clear and unblemished face when faced with the prospect of a limitless wish rather than even attempt to ask for his murdered mother or the beloved late father he constantly pines for, it’s tough to tell if it’s a choice reflective of Jamie’s superficiality or simply sloppy writing.

Narrative foreshadowing is hurled at the viewer with the subtlety of a grenade launcher to the retina, with a script fraught with ham-fisted delivery and amateurish conveniences (a scene involving an accidental excessive purchase of cling film early in the film exists only to help make a later murder all-too-convenient) standing out like a sore thumb while Ridley’s penchant for self-indulgence hardly helps, as he lends his hands to writing the film’s soundtrack himself: a handful of tracks gracefully sung by Sturgess, but filled with distractingly obvious plot-mirroring lyrics. As a result, the film doesn’t quite trust viewers to pick up on the already overt plot points and symbolic undercurrents, but also errs on the side of overly muddled ambiguity when it should be answering more important questions. The finale is especially problematic; ultimately it’s tough to know to how much of the story is a surreal fabrication, and as such, the ending, with its muddled lack of answers, could be seen as a lazy cheat by which to explain away any number of nonsensical plot problems.
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The flaws are made all the more frustrating because of the staggering amount of talent and promise on display. Jim Sturgess is fantastic in the lead role, juggling paranoid introverted angst with a wounded vulnerability, his performance is rather incredible, and maintains the audience’s sympathies even when his character makes questionable choices. Eddie Marsan steals scenes efficiently as the devilishly sinister and ruthlessly businesslike Weapons Man, while a never-more-likeable Noel Clarke is wonderful in his all-too-small role as Jamie’s amiable neighbour A.J.. Most notably, Ridley lavishes the film with a distinct visual fare – filled with stunning cinematic vista shots of the London city and sublime, grimy yet colourful fairytale visuals, Heartless never looks less than gorgeous and is never short of ideas, balancing numerous genres with relative ease. For all its problems, it still manages to entertain throughout, just never to the extent of its immense potential.

Philip Ridley’s Heartless is a film crammed full of admirable ambition and a wealth of potential that sadly doesn’t know quite what it wants to say and fumbles trying; a cinematic melting pot of overused themes and interesting ideas delivered with awkward, unsteady conviction and marred by patches of amateurish storytelling, it doesn’t live up to its lofty promise. Instead, it’s an entertaining but frustratingly flawed film rather than the thought-provoking genre masterpiece it aspires to be.
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On the Blu-ray:

The Blu-ray comes with a 1080i HD transfer which faithfully preserves the sumptuous visuals without problems. It’s an utterly gorgeous film, and the transfer is equally lovely, capturing of Ridley’s intended colour-coded subtle look flawlessly, whilst handling the copious amounts of scenes bathed in darkness with wonderful clarity. The audio is equally superb, clearly balancing the ambient chaos of London streets and creepy, otherworldly shrieks of demonic and crystal-clear dialogue and lending the jump scares an extra ounce of effectiveness.

Features-wise, most notably the disc comes with an audio commentary from writer-director Ridley. It’s a talkative track filled with behind the scenes info and interesting snippets, from Ridley’s explanation of the colour-coded visuals to the nature of the demonic masks, hand-made by Ridley in his kitchen and designed to embody the nature of urban gang violence, with their knife-slashed mouths, bullet-hole eyes and shrapnel slug teeth. While his passion and creativity is clear to hear, the track doesn’t especially counter the film’s inherent problems. For fans of the film though, it’s a must-listen, and especially worthwhile for fans of the sporadically-working Ridley considering it might be another 15 years before he decides to make another film.

There’s a behind the scenes feature titled ‘Dynamite Sky: The Making of Heartless‘, but it doesn’t offer much worthwhile insight, and is mostly snippets of bland interviews and B-Roll footage, though the inclusion of audition tape footage from Sturgess and Nikita Mistry who plays Belle is a nice addition.

Also on the Blu-ray are a couple of live music videos of Sturgess performing two of the film’s original tracks, a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer in 1080p HD.

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Heartless is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from Zavvi.com, where it’s currently only £14.85.

(Note: The images above were captured and saved at a reduced quality, and though they give an idea of how the film looks, they aren’t intended to reflect the true quality of the Blu-ray image itself.)