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Lawless Heart (2001)

Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece

Like the emotions it examines, 'Lawless Heart' is full of conflict and confusion.

Lawless Heart

Director: Tom Hunsinger
Display Artist: Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger
MPAA rating: R
Studio: First Look Pictures
Cast: Bill Nighy, Stuart Laing, Ellie Haddington, Sukie Smith, Dominic Hall
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2003-02-21 (Limited release)

As the opening credits roll for Lawless Heart, 8mm "home movies" introduce us to Stuart (David Coffey), much discussed, much loved, and, now, much missed, in particular by his boyfriend, Nick (Tom Hollander). Stuart has suddenly died by drowning, and his funeral brings together various characters. Plaintive strings accompany the footage, and the melancholic mood is enhanced by gorgeous shots of an English seaside town. Aha, you think, I know where this is taking me -- to a metaphorical parlor room where relationship dramas will unfold and be resolved within the next two hours.

You wouldn't be far off. Lawless Heart is a dry, sweet little film, careful not to break your heart too badly. It journeys through the same few days three times, from three different perspectives, each segment beginning with Stuart's funeral. Sure, there's a little pain, but it seems almost purifying, and leads to enlightenment. Like the emotions it examines, Lawless Heart is full of conflict and confusion; one minute it's a stereotypical melodrama; the next it's an insightful, deceptively wise exploration of the grieving process. And like the grieving process, Lawless Heart can also verge on being drawn-out and apparently never-ending.

To start, Daniel (Bill Nighy), Stuart's brother-in-law, meets the vibrant Corinne (Clémentine Célarié) at the funeral. He soon finds himself caught between desire and his staid morality: should he risk everything for a shot at adventure or take comfort in his stagnant home life with his wife, Judy (Elaine Haddington), and their children? His story, made humorous by his emotional fumbling, ends with not so much a decision as a washing of hands. His emotions, so strong and surprising, are best left unpursued.

Throughout Lawless Heart, characters like Dan let their feelings go, first in excitement and then in retreat. Dan's experiences with Corinne and Nick's with the adorable Charlie (Sukie Smith) are paralleled by Tim's (Douglas Henshall) with Leah (Josephine Butler). All these relationships end in some sort of heartache. But you know that, once the initial pain has passed, all involved will end up the better for it: they'll take care of families, go to London or Prague, and grow up. And the talented ensemble cast members make the characters' inner turmoil fresh and believable.

Smith, Nighy, and Haddington stand out, each offering performances that are simple yet strikingly effective. Still, the overall simplicity of Lawless Heart detracts from its thoughtfulness and intelligence. Essentially, its messages are clichés: follow your heart, live life to the fullest, and don't hurt anyone if you can avoid it. While Lawless Heart does, quite charmingly, show different ways of grieving, living, and loving, it also feels incredibly familiar: "home films" shot on Super 8 cameras, for example, as pretty as the ones in Lawless Heart may be, are a universal signifier of "memory" and "wistfulness." There's not a lot of interpretive work that needs to be done here. We also get one particularly irritating montage of Tim and Leah falling in love on playground swings, laughing while going for an afternoon drive, running around like children... After this sort of simpering (and such nicely drawn and acted characters deserve much better), the cut to a romantic candlelit dinner is almost welcome.

And then, just when you've given up hope, Lawless Heart delivers bumbling moments of the goofily sublime variety. When Charlie bangs the hell out of a coconut with a hammer, then looks up, positively beaming with accomplishment, you can't help but grin along with her. And a fumbling encounter between Charlie and Nick in an abandoned rural house inspires release and happiness and devastating pain, all at the same time. Instances like these reveal an uncannily accurate perspective on the turbulence of intense emotions, particularly when exacerbated by one of the strongest: grief. When, at Stuart's funeral, Corinne tells Dan about an old lover who didn't "live life," but "watched it, like a comedy," she could be talking about any of Lawless Heart's stuck-in-the-same-old-town characters.

As life's "big problems" (death, sex, and loss) take hold of them, they are forced to acknowledge their own agency and reluctantly accept the possibility that their own actions affect those around them. An important lesson, to be sure, but also one we've learned many times, from many movies. There's been some writing in the past couple years about the "death" of British film drama (aside from infrequent successes like Secrets and Lies). Directed by Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, Lawless Heart has invited praise, as a first step to reclaiming international respect for English film. Meandering, awkward, and occasionally frustrating, Lawless Heart isn't a great film. But its autumnal pacing, superior acting, and sparks of wit, charm, and vibrancy hint at a new and hopeful confidence.

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