Heartless

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Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****

Philip Ridley is back to theatrical movie-making after nearly fifteen years. In Heartless, he's come up with something so strange and frightening, marvelous and moving, apocalyptic and chilling -- and perhaps undecipherable (but you probably won't mind) -- that all I can say is: See it. (I’ve just seen it for a second time, and, yes, it’s still undecipherable, though I may be getting closer.) The man who made the cult movie The Reflecting Skin (sadly not on DVD) and who wrote The Krays (also not on DVD) is an artist, and I don't think that it's so much that he won't compromise his vision, as it is that he can't. Just as well, too -- when one’s visions are this original.

At the time of the film‘s theatrical release, I spoke briefly with its star and director, and when I remarked on how actor Jim Sturgess did a superb job of making emotional sense of something that doesn't seem to make sense on any literal level, the actor laughed and admitted that it was rather difficult, especially when members of the press asked him to describe what the film is about and to sum it all up in a sound bite, please.

Part horror/slasher movie, part sci-fi/apocalyptic doomsday scenario, part fractured family saga, Reflecting Skin tells the story of a young man, Jamie (Sturgess), a photographer with a large facial birthmark, who, in his travels, comes upon a group of... what? Kids in Halloween costumes? Alien life forms? The next generation of some strange DNA mixture? Whatever they are, they're vicious and frightening. Danger -- sometime obvious, sometimes not -- hangs over moment.

And this is just the beginning. Jamie appears to have been hand-picked to serve a very dark, devilish presence, Papa B (the bizarre and sensual Joseph Mawle), who offers our hero a deal by which he can rid himself of that unsightly facial blemish. This is one literal way in which the title figures in, but, trust me: You don't want to know specifics.

Family figures into this mix in a monumental way: a dead father (Timothy Spall, Damned United, Harry Potter) and a loving mom (the priceless Ruth Sheen, of many a Mike Leigh film), a younger brother and more. And a beautiful foreign girl (Clémence Poésy). There's a neighbor (Noel Clarke), a luckless male hustler, the little-girl acolyte of Papa B (Nikita Mistry), and, in a very funny, scary single scene, Eddie Marsan as one of Papa's underlings who pays an explanatory visit to our soon-to-be non-hero.

The strangest, most horrible and vicious things happen, and yet it all seems somehow acceptable, even bizarrely reasonable, because of the blend of psychology, culture, politics and economics that Ridley (who both wrote and directed the film) combines with science-fiction, an end-of-times scenario and the sheer need for love and acceptance demonstrated by Jamie. Sturgess gives a powerhouse performance, but it's the kind that almost always goes unrecognized -- in movies that stretch the boundaries of cinema while going, for the most part, unseen. His job here, together with the work he does in Peter Weir’s The Way Back, adds up to some of the best acting of last year, Colin Firth or no Colin Firth.

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