Toronto After Dark 2010: Heartless

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“The gothic horror genre has been fairly maligned in cinemas lately – shoddy stories and appeals to the lowest common denominator are largely to blame. Thankfully, Heartless is the movie to buck the trend.”

Heartless

Dir. Philip Ridley (2009, UK, 114 mins.)

Heartless is an uncommon film from an uncommon director. Philip Ridley is, among other things, a visual artist, a photographer, a novelist, and a playwright. Ordinarily, one would expect all these influence to make for a jumbled film or a vanity project. Thankfully, Ridley brings all these sensibilities to bear smoothly and beautifully in this urban gothic morality fable.

London has not look so decayed since the days of Jack the Ripper. Ridley, a native of East London, paints a bleak portrait of societal breakdown in hues that are sombre, menacing, and cold. Ridley’s east London is a place where hooded youth incinerate their victims with Molotov cocktails, no one feels safe, and demons prowl the street. It is also a place where the devil himself is ready to make a deal with a naive and lonely young man.

Jim Sturgess takes a turbulent and relentless turn as Jamie Morgan, a young photographer self-conscious of his heart-shaped port-wine stain birthmark. We see the world as Jamie interprets it; alienated, he is terrified of everything around him. Our complete immersion into Jamie’s world is part of the reason this film is so successful; though Jamie’s birthmark is hardly disfiguring, we are so absorbed into his mindset that we also begin to feel like it is a curse.

Heartless takes an unexpected humorous twist in the middle. At first, this feels out of place and strange; after all, the film, up to that point, has been bleak and humourless. However, it quickly becomes apparent that two things are happening. Firstly, Jamie (and the audience) is using humour to deal with something terrible (a grisly, ritualistic murder). Secondly, the humour provides a nice break; without this break from the film’s unbelievable blackness, watching the rest may have been impossible.

The plot of Heartless gets fairly twisted. Rather boldly, Ridley elects not to resolve every loose end and lingering question; even better, he chooses to imply rather than explain. This is a nice break from the Hollywood tendency to spell everything out for their audience at a film’s end; though, rest assured, Ridley certainly makes his point.

The gothic horror genre has been fairly maligned in cinemas lately – shoddy stories and appeals to the lowest common denominator are largely to blame. Thankfully, Heartless is the movie to buck the trend.

Dave Robson

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