Reviewed by: James Benefield

In Heartless's hellish version of east London, you have to be afraid of everything. The man in the corner shop can sell you a gun, if you ask nicely, the hoodies down the road morph into mutated lizards with a penchant for arson and the city looks like something for Blade Runner - where there are shades of sinister, beautiful decay. This is equal parts a paranoid mood piece and fantasy horror.

No wonder disfigured semi-professional photographer Jamie Morgan (a brooding Jim Sturgess) is a virtual recluse, still living with his Mum, Marion (Ruth Sheen). His port-wine-stained face should be the least of his worries, however. It appears there are demons in town. One day, while waiting at a bus stop, he and his mother are savagely attacked by a group of them. Unfortunately, Marion doesn't survive.

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While recuperating from the attack, Jamie meets Papa B (Joseph Mawle). Hovering somewhere between Mephistopheles and Beelzebub, Papa B promises Jamie a better life in exchange for some favours. The true nature of the favours is revealed when a weapons master (played with a savage grace by Eddie Marsan) comes calling. Jamie soon realises he's not going to be creating art for this guy.

Heartless is like a sprawling, literary fantasy novel condensed into two hours. The amount of creativity and ideas on display is astonishing. Plot points, motifs and dialogue foreshadow and repeat themselves. Character development is critical. And there are some perfectly constructed subplots and moments which seem like digressions, but when viewed retrospectively manage to fit in perfectly with the journey of the film's central character. It is written and directed by a highly acclaimed novelist and playwright, after all.

And therein lies the movie's fundamental problem. It worries so much about its overall picture and journey, that it forgets to be cinematic. The tone is all over the place, for instance. And there is too much detail crammed in to its running time; key plot points (such as the death of Mrs Morgan) are rushed through. It feels as though it has been quite heavily cut in the editing room, in order to rein in proceedings for the screen.

This is strange consider it is a movie whose directorial style is very much inspired by people such as David Lynch and Terry Gilliam. These are directors famous for their long, digression-fuelled films. An extra 20 minutes onto the film, in order to flesh out some of the strands, would not have gone amiss.

That said, there's nothing quite like it. It is scary, utterly bizzare, funny and possesses a highly rare 'wow' factor. The acting is of a high standard too. With a shade more calm, it could have quite easily been a masterpiece.

Reviewed on: 24 May 2010
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A photographer's son with an unusual birthmark comes to suspect that demons are murdering the people of London.
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Director: Philip Ridley

Starring: Jim Stugess, Timothy Spall, Clemence Poesy, Noel Clarke, Joseph Rawle

Year: 2009

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK

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