Lawless Heart.

Lawless Heart.

Lawless Heart.

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Feb. 21 2003 3:59 PM

A Dead Man in Essex

Lawless Heart is an unruly gem.

Lawless Heart: an unassuming gem
Lawless Heart: an unassuming gem

Lawless Heart (First Look) is an unassuming gem: an impishly funny, melancholy, absolutely delightful English ensemble drama that tells three simultaneous stories—each about a spasm of emotional recklessness—consecutively. It revolves around Stuart (David Coffey), who isn't really in it: He died in a boating accident before it opens and is only glimpsed in silent home movies. The film begins with its three male protagonists, Dan (Bill Nighy), Nick (Tom Hollander), and Tim (Douglas Henshall) heading to the wake. Somber farmer Dan is married to Stuart's sister, Judy (Ellie Haddington); doleful cuddle-bear Nick was Stuart's lover and restaurant partner; and carrot-haired party-animal Tim was a close childhood friend who'd been AWOL from their Essex village for eight years. I suppose it's part of the point that none of these men is as lively and fun as Stuart was: Lawless Heart is about what happens when the life of the party leaves and the others must suddenly fill the vacuum.

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Because of the movie's structure, you glimpse events and characters in the first story that don't make sense until the second or third, when what was once at the periphery moves to the center—and what was once at the center moves to the periphery. In the first segment, an alluring middle-aged French flower-shop owner (Clémentine Célarié) flirts pointedly with dour Dan, who describes himself as "rather flattered" when she suggests he's depressed: "I suppose I have emotions, but I don't make a meal of them." The fun here is scanning the masklike face of Nighy—a revered English stage and TV actor—for minute signs of feeling. He doesn't speak his lines, he muses them; he takes huge, mind-boggling sentiments—"Life has become narrow. … It's like a mystery where you worked out who did it and still have 50 pages to go"—and makes them hilariously microscopic. His homophobia is as unexamined as everything else in his life. It slips out when he sips a whiskey and quizzes the grieving Nick on his fidelity to Stuart; he seems to think that gays have no ties. "With our lot," he says, sadly, "there are formalities. … Yet there is a longing …"

Love slows the fast-laner
Love slows the fast-laner

The movie doubles back on itself in the manner of Pulp Fiction (1994), restarting from the same opening wake, yet the structure isn't meant to tease your brain or throw you for loops. The writer-directors, Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, merely want to concentrate on one emotional arc at a time without all the skipping around you get in modern polyphonic films, TV shows, and soap operas—without the interwoven A plots and B plots and C plots. The selfish bounder Tim crashes with the widowed Nick and throws a big party, after which Nick finds a big, pretty, naked girl called Charlie (Sukie Smith) passed out in his bed. The guarded, fastidious gay man and the high-spirited working-class good-time girl make a peculiar couple, but they slip into an intimacy that baffles them both—and that moves beyond the comic into something terribly poignant. In the film's final chapter, Tim's story, we meet the leggy knockout Leah (Josephine Butler) whom we've glimpsed in the background of the other two stories. She's not just the object of Tim's lust. She makes him want to stay put for the first time in his life. But she's just out of reach—for reasons that take a while to catch on to. Sometimes it takes a village to raise a relationship.

Each of these stories is told in a subtly different style, and each is pleasurable in itself. But there's a special pleasure when you finally see the whole picture, the whole emotional ecosystem with its branches and tributaries. I loved the movie more the second time, and I loved it the first: The characters were like family that I didn't want to lose. (I want to see all these actors again, but I'm not sure I can bear seeing them in different roles.) Lawless Heart was beautifully shot (by Sean Bobbit) in marshy Essex and the Isle of Man. The landscape is small-scaled but deliriously unruly—like the movie.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.