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Who's dead?
A region 2 DVD review of LAWLESS HEART by Slarek
 

Cinematic stories of loss and bereavement are not exactly uncommon, especially in the independent sector. Recently we have had two notable works dealing specifically with the shock of losing a loved one and the grieving process that follows in the shape of Todd Field's In the Bedroom and Nani Moretti's The Son's Room. In Lawless Heart, the second film from Boyfriends directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, the death itself is not the central issue, but a touchstone for three interconnected stories of loss and longing, featuring the father, the boyfriend and a long lost friend of Nick, the man whose death is the starting point for the movie's narrative.

Nick's father Dan is a struggling farmer and family man whose life is lacking any sort of spark. He has never really come to terms with his son's homosexuality and is politely tolerant rather than warm to his son's boyfriend Nick. At the funeral he is befriended by Corrine, a good-looking, articulate French woman who opens up the possibility of an extra-marital relationship that he both desires and fears. Boyfriend Nick, meanwhile, has been left somewhat stunned by the loss of his partner, and a chance meeting with dippy Charlie starts an uneven friendship that seems to be leading to something more profound. Old friend Tim has returned to the family fold after ten years away, and his arrival not only severely disrupts Nick's life, but presents Tim himself with the unexpected possibility of true love.

What could have been a pleasant, dignified wandering through recognisable territory soon proves to be so much more. Hunsinger and Hunter's script, created from hours of improvisations with the actors (not all of whom were the ones who appeared in the final film), is consistently smart without ever stooping to the sort wisecracking or post-modernist referencing we'd expect from a mainstream US take on the same theme. Familiar situations seem fresh, made more so by some splendid character detail that makes even the smallest role memorable and the leads consistently engaging, even when their motives are unclear and their actions seemingly self-centred or aimless.

The movie's freshness is further enhanced by its non-linear structure. Rather than cutting between the three stories in the standard narrative manner, Hunsinger and Hunter run the same series of events three times, each from a different character's point of view. Like many of the story elements, this approach is not new – both Pulp Fiction and Run Lola Run used it to fine effect – but Lawless Heart is paradoxically both less flashy and more inventive in its use of this technique than either of these films, making it central to the manner in which the film's narrative and character information unfold. The first story revolves primarily around Dan, but includes almost all of the story's other characters, often in seemingly throwaway or even baffling moments whose significance only becomes clear in the second story, though as these mysteries are solved, others appear. Only in the final viewpoint do all of the parts fall into place, and they do so with a seemingly effortless elegance that is a quiet delight.

Particularly satisfying is the way this three-story structure reveals character detail, especially that of Tim, who in the first story is interesting and in the second utterly infuriating – the seemingly self-centred way he takes advantage of the grieving Nick's good nature and turns his life upside down makes you want to slap him, and actually had me genuinely uncertain about watching the final story, which was clearly going to be based around him. But this is exactly why the structure is so central to the film's success – having shown us a man whose actions seem selfish and without reason, the final story reveals a completely different side of him and in the process reveals exactly why he behaves as he does. In the space of half-an-hour, he goes from being a pain in the arse to a man we are almost prepared to weep for. The trick is, we feel for him so strongly at almost the same point in the narrative as we were cursing him in the previous story – a lesson in not judging by what you think you know about someone is soundly and impressively delivered.

All of which would count for nothing if the performances were not up to scratch, but it's safe to say there isn't a wrong note anywhere here, a first-rate cast on absolutely superb form. Just about stealing the film is Bill Nighy's delightful Dan, his gentle delivery giving way to a hilariously befuddled collection of 'umms' and 'ahhhs' when he finds himself out of his depth or intimidated by members of the opposite sex. Douglas Henshall is terrific as Tim, creating a seemingly shallow character and then revealing real depth and humanity without actually modifying his portrayal in any significant way. As Nick, Tom Hollander turns in a performance that is the complete flipside of his wonderfully flamboyant one in Bedrooms and Hallways, quietly but effectively communicating the inner pain and sense of loss he is suffering. As the most put-upon one in the film, in part because he's such a nice guy, he also becomes the most sympathetic. Though a male-centred story, all of the female characters are impressively performed, but special mention has to go to Sukie Smith, who creates in Charlie a wonderfully daffy yet completely believable and likeable girl who at first comes across, like Tim, as a disruptive element in Nick's life, but soon reveals herself to be another character in search of something she can never seem to find, and thus a wildly kindred spirit and an increasingly positive component of Nick's grieving process.

As a character drama, Lawless Heart scores on every level, but it also boasts its fair share of spot-on comic moments, most of which spring from character detail or performance: Charlie laying out tables and stopping to suspiciously smell a fork; Dan's almost acrobatic attempts to hide behind a car to avoid being spotted by Corrine; Tim arriving at the funeral and asking simply "Who's dead?", which is immediately undercut by his shock at finding it is his old friend.

Deconstructing a film like this only goes so far to explaining why it works so damned well, as its chief virtue is how beautifully it succeeds as a whole – the way the script, the structure, the performances, the detail, Adrian Johnson's wonderful music score and Hunsinger and Hunter's direction all come together to make a complete, emotionally involving, utterly satisfying work that stands as one of the best British films in years, and one that deserves to be far more widely seen.

sound and vision

OK, let's start with the good news. This is a decent enough transfer from a clean source print, with good contrast, colour and black levels. Pin sharp it ain't, and as a low budget work, the film grain is visible but never seriously distracting. Fans of low budget indie works will know what to expect and accept it as part of the aesthetic.

It's nice to see a low-budget British film getting special edition treatment, with a decent set of extras, so why oh why, with all this, have we got a cropped 4:3 transfer instead of the correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio? This constantly undermines director of photography Sean Bobbitt's careful compositions, sometimes resulting in cramped 2-shots and uncomfortably cropped faces and heads. Any argument that this was actually the correct aspect ratio or that this is an open matte print holds no water. As someone who has worked as a cameraman and is very familiar with compositional rules, I know a cropped 1.85:1 print when I see one, and hard evidence is provided by the deleted scenes, which and, a little astonishingly, in the correct aspect ratio. Since some of the deleted scenes are actually alternate or extended versions of ones included in the film, you are able to compare side by side, and the evidence is conclusive. For a direct comparison, see the screen grabs below. If the film weren't so good, this wouldn't hurt so much.

The soundtrack is Dolby 2.0 rather than the always preferred 5.1, but is a nicely vibrant one nonetheless, especially when music is to the fore, whether it be the stop-motion sequences that separate the three stories or diagetic music in night clubs or at parties. If you have a DSP cinema mode on your amp then the surround is rather good and bass levels solid enough to fool you occasionally into thinking this is actually a 5.1 track.

The animated menus, accompanied by music clips from the film, are very nicely done.

extra features

It's always heartening to see a small film getting a decent set of extras, and Lawless Heart comes with a most respectable collection. First up is a commentary track by directors Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, who are joined at appropriate moments by actors Ellie Haddington, Sukie Smith and Josephie Butler. A busy commentary with few dead patches, the directors divide their time between interesting background information and explaining the subtext of the action, most, though perhaps not all of which should be obvious to observant viewers. The technical details – such as the stylistic differences between each of the three stories and the use of Hunsinger's students in key support roles – are very interesting.

A number of interviews, all conducted in the same location, provide good background information on the film, even if some of it is repeated in the commentary. The first, with directors Hunsinger and Hunter, is 20 minutes long and full of useful material, including the genesis and construction of the film. The 10 minute interview with Bill Nighy is fun, in part because of his deadpan delivery that wanders nicely between serious response and piss-take. Also running at 10 minutes is a generally sincere interview with the actors who guest on the commentary track, Ellie Haddington, Sukie Smith and Josephine Butler, who clearly enjoyed the experience of making the film and feel it was a worthwhile project. All are 4:3 and shot on video.

A selection of 8 deleted or alternative scenes give sometimes helpful information on why certain scenes played as they did, or why particular characters behaved in a certain way (Charlie in particular). All are presented non-anamorphic 1.85:1 (one looks more 1.66:1) from what looks and sounds like tape masters with the timecode playing at the bottom of the screen. Only one exceeds 2 minutes in length (and then not by much) and most are much shorter. All have optional directors' commentary, but due to the length of the sequences – one is only 24 seconds long – they get little chance to go into depth about why the scenes were cut.

Two trailers are included – the one that finally made it to cinemas and an early version, which comes with an audio introduction in which the directors express a preference for this version. I agree – the early trailer gives a much better flavour of the film than the one that finally made its way into cinemas. The early trailer, like the deleted scenes, appears to have been mastered from tape, is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and has timecode running at the bottom of screen throughout. The Final Trailer is 4:3 and fine quality.

Finally there are a selection of trailers for other Optimum releases: Nine Queens, Lost in la Mancha, Amores Perros, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not and Kurt and Courtney.

summary

Were it not for that bloody cropped 4:3 transfer, this would be a first-rate disk and come highly recommended. I'm, tempted to recommend it anyway, because I so want this terrific little film to get more widely seen, but the cropped transfer, quite frankly, pisses me off a great deal – with widescreen TVs in so many UK households now and even mainstream releases appearing on DVD in their correct aspect ratio, it seems absurd that an independent film should be so treated. So the verdict is: great film, good extras, annoying transfer. If it's a choice between not seeing it and seeing it in this cropped form, then definitely see it, but borrow it if you can. 4:3 cropping should be severely discouraged.

Lawless Heart

UK 2001
99 mins
directors
Tom Hunsinger
Neil Hunter
starring
Bill Nighy
Tom Hollander
Douglas Henshall
Clémentine Célarié
Ellie Haddington
Sukie Smith
Josephine Butler

DVD details
region 2
video
4:3 cropped
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Directors' and actors' commentary
Interviews with directors and principal actors
Trailers
Deleted scenes
distributor
Optimum
release date
Out now
review posted
3 December 2003

See all of Slarek's reviews