A middlebrow sensibility informs The Lawless Heart, a soft, mildly enjoyable melodrama about a web of tangled, constantly shifting relationships among the residents of a small, provincial English town. Neil Hunter and Tom Hunslinger, who earlier made the 1995 gay film Boyfriends, acquit themselves more honorably as writers than directors of a serio comedy whose chief novelty is its narrative structure. Indeed, in scope, ambition, and particularly productions values, The Lawless Heart fits perfectly the small screen, which means that theatrical prospects outside the UK are rather dim. That said, the film will benefit from the current low profile of British cinema, as is evident by its inclusion in Locarno, Edinburgh and other festivals.
Though intended as a sharp contemporary story in which love, lust and loyalty are tested and stretched to the limit, The Lawless Heart is as pedestrian and literate as its title. The film's major asset is its script, which is divided into three segments, each focusing on a different protagonist. What unifies the yarn is certainly not the directors' vision, which is severely lacking, or the movie's visually style, which is also absent, but rather a theme and a set of characters whose fates change in an intriguing way as a result of their crisscrossing paths.
Point of departure for three sections is the shocking death of a gay man named Stuart, and its far-reaching, unanticipated effect on the lives of his family members and clique of friends. Seen from three disparate but interconnected angles, each story reveals yet another serio-comic dimension of modern relationships.
The center of the first act is Dan (Nighy), a seemingly loving father and faithful husband, that is until he meets Corinne (Celaire), a charming French lady, whose honesty and "seize the moment" mentality contrast refreshingly with the more conservative and hypocritical ethos of Dan, his wife Judy (Haddington), and their friends. While resisting Corinne, Dan succumbs to the advances of another woman. Michelle, who treats him with oral sex. Main dilemma here, faced by Dan and Judy (who is Stuart's sister), is whether to bestow Stuart's money on his surviving companion, Nick (Hollander).
A gay restauranteur, Nick finds himself befriended by a sparky and aggressive woman, Charlie (Smith), shortly after losing his boyfriend. At first, their relationship seems innocent–just good friends–until it takes a dramatic turn and includes a sexual encounter. Central conflict here is Nick's doubt over his sexual orientation, specifically, whether a hetero affair means a betrayal of the intimate relationship he had with Stuart.
In the concluding and liveliest segment, the protagonist is Tim (Henshall), a carefree, charismatic fellow, who arrives in town after an eight year absence, searching for "the something" that's still missing from his life. As in the other chapters, a "femme fatale," in this case his neighbor Leah (Butler), provides the catalyst for an identity crisis and a new, more mature future, after realizing that Leah is still attached to her former boyfriend.
As they demonstrated in their first feature, Boyfriends, in which three gay relationships were tested over one eventful weekend, Hunter and Hunslinger have commendable facility with fluent, lively dialogue and realistic portraiture. Each of the dozen or so characters, male and female, comes across as a fully developed individual. What they still lack is command of film's technical properties of film: camera movement, cutting, framing, pacing. Though decently acted by the entire ensemble, The Lawless Heart suffers from a flat direction and commonplace visual style–Hunter and Hunslinger don't benefit much from being filmmakers directing for the big screen. At its current shape, The Lawless Heart is very much a writers' project, almost made-to-order for the tube.