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Ben Austwick [Film Festival 09.07.09] United Kingdom movie review horror



Year: 2009
Directors: Philip Ridley
Writers: Philip Ridley
IMDB: link
Trailer: N/A
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 4 out of 10

While commendable, ambition is rarely enough to carry a movie, and trying to do too much can ruin one quite easily. Restraint, directness, brevity and attention to detail are in many ways a much more effective way to transfer an idea to the big screen, but Heartless is a film that manages none. Chasing itself round in circles, lacking even the small amount of believability needed for a fantasy piece and getting bogged down in its own directionless story, ambition is one thing Heartless isn't lacking, but it seems to be to the detriment of everything else.


Jim Sturgess plays Jamie Morgan in an awful, snivelling performance that's the first of many problems in this sprawling, credulity-stretching film. Wet-eyed, stooping and looking as if he's constantly on the verge of bursting into tears, perplexingly Jamie is seen as a stand-up guy and is approached by a couple of friendly strangers integral to the plot in the film's opening scenes, whereas in real life they'd run a mile. Perhaps it's the artfully scruffy, trendy look he sports that attracts them, which along with his career as a professional photographer doesn't quite fit the council flat-dwelling, East End everyman character he's meant to be. The rest of his family fit the East End archetype well, but Jamie just looks like, well, a drama student. This is minor and perhaps something a lot of viewers will happily ignore, but it's symptomatic of a lack of attention to detail that at times crosses into blindness.

Heartless's opening ideas, despite playing to the hysterical fear of a feral underclass perpetrated by the British tabloid press, are actually quite effective. In the dark, claustrophobic streets of Shoreditch and Bethnal Green in East London, youths in hoodies and demonic masks are torching innocent passers-by by throwing petrol bombs at them; but on seeing them close up, Jamie knows the truth - they actually are demons, sent to bring chaos to the city. The doom-laden millennial feel of this opening section is set nicely against the grimy, urban backdrop, which while a little clichéd (despite pockets of poverty, gentrified Shoreditch is very much the artistic heart of London, with all the photo shoots and art school short films this entails) is still an effective location.

It's when Jamie meets the leather-trousered king of the demons that the film really begins to go downhill. There is nothing wrong with bringing fantasy into this type of gritty, urban setting, but the clichéd Gothic styling of Heartless is not the way to do it, removing it further from present-day East London reality and buying into an existing, dated vision that is all about image and playing to a particular audience, rather than trying to do anything new or explore the ideas thrown up by the film's premise. To be fair there are nods to modern day London in multicultural incidental characters, but none are developed and only serve to cloud the story. The turgid rock soundtrack, performed by the director's own band with vocals by himself, is an awful vanity project that shouldn't have got anywhere near the film, and reinforces the impression of a self-important director blind to his own failings.

The story rapidly gets lost in its own meanderings, each new part linking to the part before but not necessarily the part before that, but the general idea is that Jamie is set a task by the demon king that will turn his problems around and give him the happy life that has always been so elusive. The gruesome task taps into the established mythos of Shoreditch, the half-fact, half-fiction of eighteenth-century occult church architect Nicholas Hawksmoor and the Jack the Ripper murders of the nineteenth-century, explored by writers such as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Alan Moore; but these solidly intriguing fantasies are eschewed by Philip Ridley in favour of his own ideas, which in comparison are woefully lacking.

A muddy ending ties up the ends but doesn't forgive the convoluted meanderings of what has come before, and is finished off in a poor cop-out of a finale that really should have tried to add some solidity to the pretentious, self-important nothingness of the film that preceded it. You're left with a film that covers a hell of a lot of ground but manages to say absolutely nothing, all gloss and no substance, fantasy as cliché that does little but tap into the right imagery. What's worrying is how popular it seemed with the Frightfest crowd, and the thought that Philip Ridley may feel vindicated in his vision rather than go and have a big, long think about what he's done.

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Jimmy C (8 years ago) Reply

woah...how much we disagree. How you can call Jim Sturgess's performance awful is beyond understanding. He gave the most incredible and naturalistic performance I've seen from an actor in recent memory (and about 1000 people in the audience would probably agree). I was so affected by the power of this film and the performances.
Why do I just get the feeling that you are going against the grain just to stand out!?

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Ben Austwick (8 years ago) Reply

I'm not doing that at all and never do, please see my other reviews for proof!

Similarly I can't understand why on earth everyone at Frightfest liked this so much, but there are a handful of us who think it's just awful. I was expecting to get a bit of stick for this review though.

As for Sturgess's preformance, I can see why some might like it, but naturalistic???

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FarieTale (8 years ago) Reply

I'd like to point out some mistakes in your 'review'...

(1) it was not the directors own band who performed the songs, and it weren't was it the director who sang the songs. The director merely wrote the words. As, indeed, he had done on his previous film, The Passion of Darkly Noon. And the director was in a band and writing lyrics, long before he ever made his first film. It was Sturgess who sang the songs... if fact unless you were late he sung them LIVE in front of the whole audience!

(2) Ridley was born, was brought up, and still lives in the area where the film was shot. So, if anyone knows that area, it should be him.

(3) It was clear to me that the character Jamie didn't really have a career as a professional photographer. Just the opposite. He hid himself away and merely hung up his photos at home. Wasn't that the whole point...?

(4) The whole film is seen through the eyes of Sturgess's character. It's HIS perception of the world around him that we're seeing. A point that seems to be totally missed, or deliberately ignored in order to score points, by the reviewer.

Also big up for insulting the frightfest crowd...

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Ben Austwick (8 years ago) Reply

Sorry I really should have noticed it was Sturgess and not the director. My bad.

Disagreeing with an audience is insulting them? Please

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Cage Frighter (8 years ago) Reply

I was really taken by Sturgess' performance. As Farietale mentioned, most of the events happen in Jamie's mind, and once I got into that perspective I found the movie really satisfying. I also thought the soundtrack worked well and set the tone.

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Ben Austwick (8 years ago) Reply

Thanks for your restraint Cage Fighter, people seem to get awfully insulted sometimes!

I think the "all in the mind" trick is a bit of a cop-out, akin to "it was all a dream". It removes the need for meaning.

I didn't mention it because I thought it gave things away a little, but never mind...

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Rick Archer (8 years ago) Reply

Ben read your review with interest and by and large I do agree with your overall assessment. I was at the Frightfest premiere .. well me and 1300 others! .. and came out of it thinking "ok I guess and watchable enough but where was this groundbreaking masterpiece I kept hearing about in articles beforehand".

Went into it with an open mind as I've never seen any Philip Ridley movies before.I felt the movie was a little disappointing and thought it self to be much cleverer and original than it actually was.

Overall it was a well put together and shot movie with some good (but not great) performances by Sturgess, the young girl and also the versatile Eddie Marsan but there was nothing really highly original in it. A mix of elements which didnt always gel and it was obvious early on that the majority of the goings on were all in Jamie's head.

I wouldnt honestly say that it was universally hailed by the Frightfest audience - a slight majority probably either loved it or liked elements of it - as from my experience it seemed to polarise opinions from those loving it and claiming they wept buckets in it (the crying thing nonplusses me completely .. didnt connect or even care much about the characters .. apart from Jamies mum to be upset at their demise) to those violently hating it to those of us in the middle who though it was ok but nothing out of the ordinary and a little cliched in its view of the world Jamie and his family live in.

The post festival review from the organisers made the comment that "Heartless received the love it/hate it reception that it will have to get used to" and I think thats quite accurate.

I'm quite interested in how Lionsgate are going to handle this one - looking at the kind of movies they usually release I'm thinking "is Heartless the movie they expected? if its not what they expect then how will they deal with it?" I get the feeling they would have preferred the molotov wielding hoodies and Papa B to be real and not just a figment of Jamie's troubled mind.

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Ben Austwick (8 years ago) Reply

Interesting points Rick, thanks. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who didn't like it, though you seem to have taken a more balanced view :) We differ in that I didn't even find it watchable, and would have walked out if I hadn't been asked to write this review.

I haven't seen any of Ridley's other films either and you've got me wondering if seeing some consistency in his work (even if it is based on something I don't personally like) might give me a bit more respect for him. I hate talking myself into watching more from a director I haven't liked but it seems that I just have...

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Rick Archer (8 years ago) Reply

Well I was in a good mood and open to a new experience and I was trying to give Ridley the benefit of the doubt - catch me on a bad day and I might have felt "what a crock" :) Out of interest I checked out the Frighfest forum and boy was it getting a little heated on there! Interesting reading but a strange vibe at times of some who passionately loved the movie almost berating those who didnt?? On Ridley's other movies Reflecting Skin seems interesting so I might give it a try ... not a priority but a possible.

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Disappointed x 1000 (8 years ago) Reply

I saw this at Frightfest and all I have to say is: what a pile of pretentious, artificial poop. Bad acting, VERY forced direction and a completely self-indulgent script that goes from bearable to laughable about 1/3 in. How does this nonsense get financed?

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Anonymous (8 years ago) Reply

this film is absolute rubbish, avoid it at all costs!

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Anonymous (8 years ago) Reply

twitchfilm likes it

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Anonymous (8 years ago) Reply

My eyebrows have shot through the roof of my head reading that Twitch review. The reviewer gushes so much that anyone in the same room as him was probably up to their ankles in water. I kinda liked most of this flick but I definitely did not find it to be some kind of truly awesome, ground-breaking, highly original and emotionally charged experience. Mr Twitch - did we see the same movie?? are there two versions out there?? Are you Phil Ridley's Mum or his Publicist ??? Its looking like a real Marmite of a movie - loveit or hate it - to me.

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Anonymous (8 years ago) Reply

I thought it was really beautiful... no idea who Philip Ridley is... only seen Sturgess in 21 so wasn't expecting anything and found myself quite taken with the whole experience. So much so I looked it up in imdb

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anonymous (7 years ago) Reply

it's terrible. pretentious and really one to avoid at all costs. Anyone who says otherwise, is something to do with the film!

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tekkan (7 years ago) Reply

Saw the film today in Cologne and was a huge fan of both Reflecting Skin and Passion of darkly noon. This film is a waste of time. Shockingly overambitious.Pretentious, ridicolously bad acting of the main character, a story that could have been interesting but loses all it´s promise after a third of the film but worst of all is the music. Ridley, are you kidung me? What went wrong the last 15 years?

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Anonymous (7 years ago) Reply

I was also at Frightfest and totally agree with your review, Ben. This really was a monumentally pretentious and unimaginative movie. I feel bad for the filmmakers who seem genuine enough.

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Exhumed (7 years ago) Reply

Heartless Rocks!!!
Small Masterpiece...

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Charlie (7 years ago) Reply

Ridley is a terrible, pompous sophomore writer and director. All his films and plays are staged and mounted nicely but you can't escape the tha fact that a man and an 'artist' his age who is still writing about literal Faustian pacts and guys who can't get the girl because they're ugly outcasts is TRAPPED IN ADOLESCENCE.

Stale cliches. The stalest.

Doen with him. Darkey Noon - Crap. Reflecting Skin - Crap.
Fastest Clock in the Universe - Crap.

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a29j (6 years ago) Reply

I've just watched this on dvd after looking forward to seeing it for some time (I hadn't seen any negative reviews prior to this) only to be disappointed. I have to agree with the reviewer in that it was promising enough until the Faustian deal with (presumably part-time roadie) Papa B took place -not that there's any reason why the plot taking this path should, in itself, have been a cause for alarm, but the lack of imagination, reprocessing of cliche and the cop out ending (and it absolutely is a cop out of the worst kind -the kind that conveniently allows the writer to avoid taking any sort of responsibility for the narrative strand of the film and where it was headed) really killed this one for me.

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(6 years ago) Reply

the per that wrote the review about this movie seems to be saying a lot but doesnt actually say shit about the movie

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Austyn (5 years ago) Reply

As an American I thought it was a good film which may prove the point of the person who wrote the review (which in my opinion sounds a little over hateful for dramatic sake) but I did hate the "all in the mind" ending. Definite Copout. I would like to have understood "Gator's" role a little more. But I will not agree in any way shape or form that Sturgess was bad. He had great range, but hey, in America, I guess we are easily pleased.


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