Jamie Morgan (Jim Sturgess) has been self-conscious about his looks since he was a picked on child, thanks to a huge birthmark covering half his face and shoulder. Though his beloved father (Timothy Spall) is now dead, he treasures the camera that he gave him, and prefers to snap the photographs he makes his living with alongside his brother Raymond (Justin Salinger) using film developed in a darkroom rather than digitally. Today he is out looking for interesting subjects, when he spots something strange in a window of the rough neighbourhood where he lives - but things are about to get a lot rougher...
Philip Ridley's third film in about twenty years was much anticipated by those who had been so impressed by his debut, The Reflecting Skin, and the fewer number who had liked the follow-up, The Passion of Darkly Noon, but Heartless turned out to be more the latter than the former as far as the reaction went. There were not many truly wowed by what he had created here, which was mainly down to how obscure the narrative was, not making it crystal clear whether we were seeing a fantasy world in Jamie's head, or whether there really was something sinister going on to the extent that there were demonic forces at work.
This question was solved in its way by the final scenes, but until then too many viewers were left wondering what the hell was going on, not least because even the stuff that was supposed to be happening in the real world was so bizarre, if not quite as inflected by the protagonist's imagination. In a sense, we were back in the territory of the unreliable narrator, as although we are not privy to Jamie's thoughts, we do see the story through his eyes, and you had to be on his uncertain wavelength to get to grips with what was shown. Ridley was fortunate to secure the services of Sturgess, as without the sympathy he generated this would be offputting indeed.
What sets Jamie over the edge after a lifetime of bullying is when news reports appear about the gang who are attacking innocent people in the area he lives, something that not only makes him worry for himself but for his nearest and dearest as well. He lives with his religious mother (Ruth Sheen) in their flat, and he may not have embraced her faith, but he is influenced by it therefore can well believe that the district he stays in has been infested not with thugs, but with actual messengers of Satan. This is only underlined when he catches sight of the gang members and they appear to have toothy, reptilian appearances under their hoods.
After an encounter with them that gets too close for comfort, to put it mildly, it looks as if what we're offered with Heartless will be a Death Wish with pretensions, with Jamie going out to buy a gun from the corner shop owner's secret weapons stash, something that leads to an amusingly menacing extended cameo from Eddie Marsan as the "weapons man". When the new arrival from across the hall, A.J. (an affable Noel Clarke) invites him out to the pub, it seems as if things might be looking up, and when apparently he secures himself the stirrings of a romance with model Tia (Clémence Poésy), he's even happier, but like so many sympathetic movie maniacs before him, this blossoming contentment comes at a price which includes a ceremonial dagger, too much clingfilm, and his own sweetly goading Tinkerbell (Nikita Mistry). As this is presented in such eccentric style, it's best to enjoy the journey through Ridley's concepts of evil, as the destination is sadly not novel enough to quite satisfy. Not conventional in the telling, but overfamiliar in the story if you can fathom it. Music by David Julyan.