Review: Heartless

Philip Ridley’s brilliant Heartless sees scarred Londoner Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) make a pact with the devil in this tragic tale of isolation and madness.

Directed by: Philip Ridley
Written by: Philip Ridley
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Joseph Mawle, Noel Clarke, Clémence Poésy, Nikita Mistry, Timothy Spall
Released: 2009 / Genre: Horror / Country: UK / IMDB

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In a world rampant with paranoia and discontent, a pervading light appears in the form of Jim Sturgess’ Jamie Morgan. The twenty-five year old Londoner is a good soul in a sea of devils. But he is deeply troubled – the death of his father, his best friend and mentor, causes him endless torment, as does the large, heart-shaped birthmark that covers half his face. The birthmark is a constant reminder that he is different; branded, in his eyes, by everything that represses him. Jamie is one of a kind but to him that is only a curse. He will never be like everyone else and so lives in the dark – whether that be the darkroom he uses for his photography hobby or walking the streets under cover of night.

This Faustian tale sees Jamie Morgan living a quiet life as a photographer, working with his brother in London. A series of violent murders take place in the neighbourhood and gangland violence appears rife. When Jamie is waiting at a bus shelter with his mother, they are attacked and she is murdered. But the attack appears to be a ruse created by the mysterious Papa B (Joesph Mawle), who summons Jamie to his squalid apartment and admits carrying out the attack. He offers Jamie the chance to have his birthmark removed in return for Jamie continuing Papa B’s plan for chaos in the city. His request for Jamie to graffiti walls around the city every so often seems a reasonable form of payment for such a life-changing gift. So Jamie agrees and finds, through a rather painful process of allowing a Molotov Cocktail to engulf him in flames, that his birthmark is removed.

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Jamie has a new lease of life and meets the beautiful Tia (Clémence Poésy). After a day out together, where Jamie encourages Tia to develop her passion for photography, it transpires Papa B was lying about the deal. Now Jamie must carry out a murder. Does he carry out the strange man’s wishes to remain free of his facial scarring and continue his blossoming relationship with Tia, or ignore the request and face living life as before?

Heartless came and went during the summer of 2010, undeservingly remaining as anonymous as the film’s lead character is in the story. Philip Ridley’s third film as writer-director really does deserve a lot more attention. Not only does it present London as a sort of contemporary dystopia (envisioned through the mistrustful eyes of its chief protagonist) generating a genuine feeling of unease, but it features a powerfully tragic performance from the very talented Jim Sturgess. Sturgess’ Jamie is a tortured soul but his unfortunate scarring is never a point of sentiment. He is tortured by the bullies that hound him over his appearance, and he is tortured by his self-defeating outlook on life. As well as depth, it provides the character with plenty of scope for director Ridley to work with. And significantly, it propels him towards the devastating decision that will change his life forever.

It comes as little surprise that Heartless is such an effective horror film. After all, Philip Ridley is a talented man, not least in the art of filmmaking. The writer of novels, stage plays and screenplays, is also a recognised photographer and musician, who wrote the music for Heartless amidst covering screenplay and directing duties. In some respects such creative dominance is the prelude to over-indulgence. Yet, while lack of self-control may account for Joseph Mawle’s hammy performance, Heartless displays a creative exuberance that permeates through the picture. From Ridley’s choice of music to his production design and his framing, he knows the story is wants to tell and he tells it exceedingly well.

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There’s a lot to like about Heartless. From Ridley’s bleak production design (the squalid existence of Papa B’s apartment contrasting the equally ugly clutter of memories at Jamie’s home) to the juxtaposed excesses of his photography (the washed out colours of the day and the neon extravagance of the night). Ridley’s visual style is unsettling (think the David Lynch school of offbeat narration), and yet he goes further, creating some terrifically frightening moments. One scene sees a helpless Jamie being thrown around the room after refusing to carry out Papa B’s wishes while some suitably gruesome sequences include the disembodied but still conscious head of Jamie’s neighbour A.J. (Noel Clarke) becoming the Demon’s evening supper.

The director’s casting of Eddie Marsan is another inspired choice. The English actor who seems to exude a sort of inherent passive aggressiveness is perfect for the role of Weapons Man, another mysterious figure who informs Jamie of the murder he has to carry out. The edgy scene between Jamie and Weapons Man is one of many highlights in the film, as the Devil’s right-hand man uses a kind of dowsing rod to search Jamie’s apartment and find the weapon he must use to kill his victim.

Ridley also concocts a genuinely convincing story of a man driven to desperate measures making a pact with the devil. Jamie’s plight is easily identifiable with anyone who has felt isolated or misunderstood. His feeling of loneliness is tangible, and works to further our understanding of his decision to sell his soul. And, as we learn that Jamie’s dead father played such an important role in helping him come to terms with his skin deformity, there is authentic tragedy underlying a story that never resorts to schmaltz.

As well as its twist ending and a touching final scene, the film is further enhanced by Jim Sturgess’ terrific performance as Jamie. He is reserved and understated yet there is an underlying paranoia that threatens to boil over into full blown madness. It is quite a feat to be at once the fly on the wall and the tiger in the living room. Ultimately, Philip Ridley’s Heartless is a well-conceived and thoughtfully executed Faustian tale that breathes new life into the British horror film.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

This review is part of 31 Days of Horror:

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Dirtywithclass Reply

    I liked this one for the most part, but something about the end bothered me

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Dirtywithclass: That’s interesting…I liked it from start to finish and thought the ending was spot on. I didn’t see it coming and it was moving and fitting way to conclude the story.

  3. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Until now I hadn’t even heard of this – looks like I’ll have to check it out, after this pretty positive review!

  4. Avatar
    Jaccstev Reply

    Not a simple watch, and certainly not suited to all but the effort must be applauded.

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    Goregirl Reply

    I’ve had my eye on this one for a while. I will have to move it further up the queue now!

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