Philip Ridley hasn’t produced a film for 15 years, which might go some way to explain the ambition, boldness and confusion of his latest effort. Although anathema to the Brit-flick norm, Heartless takes too much on, resulting in sensory overload and colliding plot strands. Set in East London, the film bases itself upon the very real problem of gang culture. However, this is where Heartless and the Danny Dyer/Guy Ritchie films of the East End depart company.
Jamie Morgan is a nervous, retiring lad who has always been affected by a large heart-shaped birthmark on his face. His world is the grimy, shadow strewn alleys of a hooded-youth controlled urban domain. As someone who eschews this side of society, he silently photographs the world in an attempt to understand it. Following the death of his father, he is trying to find meaning in an order-less universe whilst trouble in his area boils over. After several murders, including that of his mother, he starts to greet the world and its violence in the meaningless, ugly manner in which it is presented to him.
In some respects, Heartless has to be one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen. It seemingly cannot decide if it’s a sober romance, Kidulthood, or Event Horizon. After realising that these hooded youths that blight East London are in fact demons, a bizarre, saturated plot thickens and curdles as supernatural explanations are found to the violence and a devil-like figure begins controlling Jamie. Wait. Did I mention the invisible girl?
Oddly enough, I’d quite like to see this film again, because, if nothing else, it is curious, intriguing and brave. There are moments when I thought it would unravel and become a wonderful film – but it never quite organises itself. There is no real cohesion, and huge ideas are rushed into the plot. Eddie Marsan (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) puts in a great stint as the ‘Weapons Man’ – employed by the devil-like Papa B to ensure Jamie carries out his part of a Faustian deal – and Jim Sturgess acts out Jamie’s turbulent life excellently.
The look of the film is perhaps its greatest asset – the half gritty, half sulphurous, iridescent shots of Bethnal Green owe to Ridley’s own experimentation with the documenting of his East London stomping ground. However, the clarity in imagery is not reflected in plot or theme. The central tagline, ‘The darker it is- the more you see’, may be true for Jamie and his evolution, but the same cannot be said for the viewer.