Credit the quality of a superior educational system. Or the native wit of two quick thinkers with a gift for understanding the human animal. Or the power of happy collaboration. In any event, Lawless Heart, the second feature co-written and co-directed by young Brits Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, is one beautiful piece of work -- as alert and aware a survey of interpersonal relations as you're likely to find at the movies this year. Working with a tiny budget in a small seaside town (Maldon, Essex), the pair manage to address big issues such as love, grief and the accidents of fate without veering into solemnity or self-importance. The three linked stories they give us here are as touching as they are tone-perfect -- and they are deftly infused with humor.
Like The Big Chill, Lawless Heart begins with the funeral of a man the other characters all cared about, but Hunter and Hunsinger are not about to launch a political and personal nostalgia-fest. Instead, they use the accidental drowning of a magnetic young man named Stuart (David Coffey) to disturb the emotional balance of their three protagonists, then propel each of them toward some measure of self-knowledge.
In the first vignette, Stuart's prudish brother-in-law, a married middle-aged farmer named Dan (Bill Nighy), finds himself attracted to an adventurous Frenchwoman (Clémentine Célarié) he meets at the funeral. Long imprisoned by caution and convention, Dan is suddenly overwhelmed by desire, and that gives him a view of his own follies and deep-seated bigotries. The second episode focuses on Nick (Gosford Park's Tom Hollander), Stuart's grief-stricken lover. He, too, enters an unlikely (and ill-considered) alliance -- with a scatterbrained yet appealing girl named Charlie (Sukie Smith) -- but in the end turns for comfort to Stuart's sister (Ellie Haddington). When the film's point of view shifts once more, it takes in Tim (carrot-topped Douglas Henshall), one of Stuart's boyhood friends. A rootless wanderer who fancies himself a ladies' man despite his empty pockets and unnoticeable looks, he unexpectedly hooks up with a shopgirl named Leah (Josephine Butler), who's been in the picture all along, just beyond his blurred vision.
Each of these understated, deceptively simple stories is linked to the others (the common characters rise and fall in importance as they circulate through the vignettes), and each contributes nicely to the film's liberating worldview. To wit: Neither our own expectations nor the strictest self-imposed taboos can withstand true emotion; set free by feeling, we grow and thrive as the old limits within us are erased. That won't always make us happy, but we career on.
At bottom, Lawless Heart is an extremely serious film, but it's never gloomy or heavy-handed. Instead, Hunter and Hunsinger arrive at their seriousness through irony and comic deflection, like magicians dazzling an audience with major sleight of hand. From the chaos of an ill-planned house party we get new insight into life's essential unpredictability. In Dan's frightened rapture we find as much humor as sadness. In death, we find a joke. In a joke, we find darkness.