The Lawless Heart
review by Nicholas Schager, 7 March 2003

The word “courage” is bandied about in Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger’s Lawless Heart, a British drama that follows the intersecting lives of three men brought together by the death of a loved one. And like its characters – a trio who dare to seek happiness, comfort, and relief despite the external and internal pressures that weigh upon them – this rather touching film displays its own modest courage in unflinchingly depicting the just-concealed similarities that bind us together and the impenetrable barriers that keep us apart. A modest but nonetheless engaging study of wounded friends trying to pick up the pieces of their fractured lives, it’s a small triumph that sidesteps sentimentality for a rough, authentic passion for life’s amusing and poignant twists of fate

The funeral of a gay restaurateur named Stuart occasions the reunion of three disparate men and provides the starting-off point for each of the film’s three semi-related stories; like the recent French import He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, the film is structured so that the same narrative time frame is shown from each character’s unique point of view. The film begins with Stuart’s brother-in-law Dan (Bill Nighy), a fifty-ish husband and father of three who leads a quiet, economically-challenged life tending his farm. Dan is emotionally comatose, telling an attendee at the funeral that he doesn’t know if he’s depressed or not because he “doesn’t know the meaning of the word.” Although incapable of recognizing it, Dan is the walking dead, and he embraces his safe, tranquil existence with wife and brood like a man stranded at sea clings to his life preserver.

Dan objects to his wife Judy’s (Ellie Haddington) desire to bequeath Stuart’s monetary assets to Nick (Tom Hollander), Stuart’s mousy longtime companion who, even after his boyfriend’s death, continues to exist (literally and figuratively) among the tattered ruins of their lost relationship. At the funeral, Nick takes on a roommate –  Stuart’s cousin Tim (Douglas Henshall), who has just returned home after eight years traveling abroad – but it’s the appearance of a wild woman named Charlie (Sukie Smith) who ignites strange and frightening feelings in Nick’s heart, much to the chagrin of Judy. Meanwhile, as Nick’s budding romance with Charlie forces him to reevaluate both his sexuality and his loyalty to Stuart’s memory, Tim – a carefree hippie without a responsible bone in his body – returns to find his parents uninterested in his presence and a hometown just as sleepy and dull as he remembered. He strikes up a romance with Leah (Josephine Butler), a local clothing store owner, but when it’s revealed that his new paramour has unfinished business with his childhood friend David (Stuart Laing), Tim learns that love isn’t quite as simple and carefree as he’d like.

As its title suggests, Lawless Heart’s three plots all elucidate how the longings of the human heart can be neither predicted nor controlled, but writers/directors Hunter and Hunsinger wisely layer their thematic objectives just under the action’s surface. Although each man realizes how Stuart’s death has, in one way or another, forced them to confront things they’d just as soon continue to ignore – Dan’s craving for romantic stimulation; Nick’s fear of facing the unknown future alone; Tim’s stunted maturity – the film never succumbs to preachy moralizing. What’s most impressive about Lawless Heart is that it presents its characters’ sometimes-dubious actions as the natural, desperate behavior of people groping for answers. These intertwined dramas are set amidst a marshy stretch of cold, windswept, barren British countryside, and the harsh physical landscape is a subtle reflection of the difficult emotional choices each must face.

Early on, Dan tells Nick that adultery is simply a matter of carpe diem, and the comment is a somber articulation of regret for not chasing down the life he wanted. Yet Hunter and Hunsinger aren’t interested in casting a depressing pall, and the ensuing scene – which finds Dan getting a variation of what he wished for, only to realize that it wasn’t quite what he had envisioned – is indicative of this engaging film’s tender, playful spirit. The filmmakers have a knack for seamlessly blending casual comedy into their tragic framework, and it’s to their credit that the off-hand blending of elation and sorrow feels unforced.

If only the duo had stopped ten minutes earlier and avoided the uplifting finale, which finds Dan, Nick, and Tim reunited and strengthened by the events of these momentous post-funeral days. Still, if the film ends on a somewhat maudlin and contrived note, its finely drawn characters and unassumingly graceful storytelling ultimately makes its somewhat sappy climactic misstep easy to forgive.

Written and
Directed by:

Neil Hunter
Tom Hunsinger

Bill Nighy
Ellie Haddington
Tom Hollander
Douglas Henshall
Sukie Smith
Josephine Butler
Stuart Laing

NR - Not Rated.
This film has not yet
been rated.






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