"Lawless Heart" is a charming, disarming and in some ways humbling film. It is so adroit in its structure, so insightful in how it explores its vivid characters that it forces us to acknowledge not only how complicated all lives are but also how easy it is to be self-centered and miss those complications in everyone else.
A thoughtful, funny and melancholic meditation on the notion that all hearts are lawless and out of control when under emotional stress, this British independent film is a surprise on several fronts, including its high level of acting and how much to chew on its mere 87 minutes provides.
Also, given how specific a sensibility and how idiosyncratic a cast of characters the film has, it is also a shock to find that "Lawless" was written and directed by Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger. But the biggest surprise of all is how effective the film's simple but unexpected twist on a "Rashomon" structure turns out to be.
That 1950 Japanese film added a new word to the language by offering four contradictory versions of the same incident. What "Lawless" does is show not one finite event but a longer period of several days' duration from the contrasting points of view of three characters, each of whom gets his own half-hour in the sun.
The notion here is not that people remember the same things differently but rather that by the nature of their lives they see different parts of the same whole and are privy to different experiences. What's peripheral to one individual is central to another, what looks puzzling from one set of eyes is easily explained through someone else's. Each successive story fills in gaps left by the previous ones, gradually providing key additional information and motivations earlier tellings have been oblivious to.
Though we end up with a complex, almost omniscient overview of these characters' lives, initially we're thrown so cold into the story that we are not sure who anyone is and who is worth paying attention to. We are intentionally made to feel late to the party, a beat behind the plot, but "Lawless' " people are so involving, there's no doubt it's worth the wait to understand them better.
Set in England in Maldon, Essex (where filmmaker Hunter grew up), "Lawless Heart" starts with a funeral for a young man named Stuart. Though we never see him (except for old home movie footage), Stuart was a major influence on the lives of all the film's characters. "Stuart," says Tim (Douglas Henshall), "was half the fun in this town." A carefree hippie just returned to town after a walkabout of eight years, Tim is introduced early on, but the first character whose shoes we walk in is Dan (the veteran Bill Nighy).
A dour farmer who looks like he's wandered in from an Ingmar Bergman film, Dan is married to Judy (Ellie Haddington), the dead man's sister. Since Stuart died without a will, she's inherited his money and has to decide whether to keep it for the family farm or give it to Stuart's bereft lover, Nick (Tom Hollander).
None of this is immediately on Dan's mind at the funeral because he finds himself engaged in an unexpected flirtation with the town's seductive French florist, Corinne (Clémentine Célarié looking like a young Jeanne Moreau).
Talking to this virtual stranger, Dan finds himself being candid and, incidentally, expressing many of the film's themes. How is it, he wonders, that possibilities that once seemed great have narrowed? Was he now not living his life but rather watching it, like a comedy? The life you have, Corinne asks, is it the life you want?
Once Dan has grappled with this interlude's possibilities, the film's focus shifts to Nick, for whom Stuart's unexpected death has been a special disaster. Waiting for Judy to decide about the money, he lets the feckless Tim move in with him and soon regrets it. Then he meets Charlie (Sukie Smith), an impulsive young woman, as good-hearted as she is bubble-headed, whose unceasing good cheer is something he is drawn to.
The last person we hear from is, of all people, Tim, who finds himself attracted to a young woman named Leah (Josephine Butler). It's in the third part of "Lawless" that the punch of the film's structure really takes hold: Tim's actions seen from his own point of view turn out to be very different from what we've seen before.
Directors Hunter and Hunsinger made use of cast improvisations as they were putting their script together, and this has made even some of the protagonist's unexpected traits much more believable.
Believability is finally one of the keys to the success of "Lawless Heart," along with its insights, its humor and its compassionate ability to discern that all of us, even the unlikeliest, have our great passions and our secret sorrows. And it understands that even people barely seen in the peripheral vision of our lives have things to teach us.
MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, nudity and language
Times guidelines: Scenes of strong and sometimes violent sexuality
A Martin Pope production, released by First Look Pictures. Directors Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger. Producer Martin Pope. Executive producers Francesa Barra, Steve Christian, Roger Shannon. Screenplay Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger. Cinematographer Sean Bobbit. Editor Scott Thomas. Costumes Linda Alderson. Music Adrian Johnson. Production design Lynne Whiteread. Art director Christina Casali. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.
In limited release.