Lawless Heart takes up the tri-play format, far too often attributed to Tarantino when of course Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), Pecás' Je Suis Figide... Pourquoi (1972) and Jarmusch's Mystery Train (1989) investigated the multiple perspective territory with significant success and entertainment value before Pulp Fiction (1994). Lawless Heart possesses a mathematical balance and precise pattern bringing together in its episodes several variations on male/female relationships yet all are ironically linked by the funeral of a gay man. It is a tale and several tales at once with marvellous surprises yet done with a greatness of subtlety.
The stories begin at, some might argue precede, Stuart's funeral. Dan (Billy Nighy) is the brother-in-law with a farm crippled by expenditure, lightly homophobic and diffident to the right to the inheritance by Nick (Tom Hollander), the lover of the deceased, while Tim (Doug Henshall) is the dead man's friend returning to the locale after an eight-year spell, astonished that a once busily hetero buddy has been in a long time gay relationship and bringing his own brand of reckless party spirit home with him. They get their own episode each, returning with the tides to the wake but there is a fourth act, a wrap up but hardly a true resolve. This is not the domain of men alone and the women play every bit as much of a part yet if any one theme connects all eight main characters it is survival. Judy (Ellie Heddington) is surviving her brother's premature passing, as is, of course, Nick, Dan is surviving financial and midlife crisis, while most everyone else is trying to overcome lost love, collapsed relationships or a failed life.
Proceedings hop, skip and jump along on short scenes and great wit. The first act following Dan is the setting stone, prone to jumpstarts and some bafflement, the mysteries of which are tidied up in the second act, that in turn sets out visual bafflers of its own that will make sense also eventually.
The casting is nigh impeccable. Tom Hollander gives a superbly understated performance recovering from years adrift in weak feature films following the promising springboard that was BBC's Harry. Mourning Stuart's loss, dashed and on automatic, waiting for the world to make sense again, his politeness drags him into a relationship with a mouthy, disowned and alive woman, Charlie, a fine performance by Sukie Smith, foil and counterweight to Hollander's Nick. Bill Nighy's trademark nuances and affectedness, and Doug Henshall's rucksack-eyed lad on the loose barnstorming ought both, by now, be driving audiences away, but Nighy's vulnerability and Henshall's losing streak with tears, in the company of so crackling a script, rescues them both.
There is a French influence, even a French character, a rare sensitivity and intimacy that is lost on most British film and television product and normally on these shores accounted for in a brutalising of the emotions. There are subtle, inspired tricks. The odd conversation is left silent or spoken over by others, the expectation that it be overheard in a later act, though not always the case. As in life they are conversations that are lost to the limitations of memory or too insignificant to recall. Many scenes are fleeting, occupied by several characters and one line of dialogue, upping the pace of the film. The closing act falls with the projection of the home movie of Stuart at play, poignantly rowing away from the camera in a dreamlike and childlike rendering of passage to an afterlife and the sun shorting in the lens turning the sky to negative, a black brilliance with a shimmering magic corona.
Lawless Heart is assured, irresistible and super-consciously scripted. It is a film deserving of wider distribution and attention, sadly not exploitable enough and too clever to be taken on by the indigenous audience. The trailer does not help either, mismatching scenes, images and dialogue, sometimes bringing verbiage closer together than it was ever intended when part of the magic and charm of the film lay in the to and the fro and the reverberating effect of the dialogue. Everything is interconnected in Lawless Heart, the people, the places, the furniture, the coconut, the lies, the need and the bottle opener, every object and action has more to it than the obvious purpose or occasioning, reminding one that the same applies to everything about oneself also. We can all cite the last time a British film made us laugh or blink but can it be recalled the last time a British film made us warm and alive with thought, as Lawless Heart does.