Pleasurable photography by ace d.p. Alwin Kuchler, and some busy playing by character actors including Mark Addy and Jim Carter, can’t disguise the fact that there’s very little happening in the light comedy-drama “Heartlands.” Helmer Damien O’Donnell (“East Is East”) keeps the story of a cuckolded husband who leaves home to reclaim his errant wife ticking over, but pic is an increasingly thin voyage of incidental pleasures rather than a journey of real discovery for the audience. Thin returns, even in Blighty, look likely for this one, with Stateside biz even more perilous.
Script, surprisingly, is by Paul Fraser, who’s written all of British director Shane Meadows’ features, including his latest, “Once Upon a Time in the Midlands.” But without Meadows around to enhance the material with offbeat touches, “Heartlands” is just another script in need of two more rewrites. O’Donnell was clearly on safer ground helming strong basic material like “East Is East,” his feature debut.
Central protag is the ever-so-slightly simple Colin (Michael Sheen), whose consuming interest is playing darts at the local pub between stints manning wife Sandra’s (Jane Robbins) small convenience store in an unnamed northern English town. Colin’s idea of a witticism is to greet his moped with “Morning, bike” every day. No wonder he’s the last to find out that Sandra has been enjoying a regular roll in the hay with Geoff (Carter), the flashy dart team captain and town’s chief cop.
Distraught about Sandra’s infidelity, and by her decision to leave with Geoff and the local darts team for a meet in Blackpool (described as “Vegas of the North,” but more like Atlantic City), Colin decides to follow on his moped to convince his wife to come home.
Thus begins what is meant to be a transforming odyssey for our nebbish hero but in fact starts running out of gas after a few reels. En route, Colin stops off at a country bar run by Ron (Addy), a portly publican with a fast tongue, an Afro hairdo, a bored wife (Ruth Jones, dropping tart one-liners) and a resentful stepdaughter (Jade Rhodes, making much of a tiny role). The following day, he crosses paths with an environmental wacko and a sympathetic Girl Scouts leader (Celia Imrie, ditto) before a passing truck trashes his moped in the middle of nowhere.
Next morning, he’s conveniently given a lift by Ron & Co., who are also on their way to Blackpool. There, Colin, Sandra and Geoff settle their scores in a low-key way.
For stretches, pic plays like a less magical-realist version of a Peter Chelsom movie, with Sheen’s performance so minimal that it scarcely holds the picture together. With little going on besides passing character-play, “Heartlands” relies on a busy song track (by Kate Rusby and John McCusker) and Kuchler’s delicately textured lensing of moorlands and Blackpool’s tacky seafront. At one point, pic takes time out for a lyrical autumnal montage (set to music from Handel’s Concerto Grosso) which brings a slight fairytale quality to the whole movie that unfortunately isn’t followed through on elsewhere in O’Donnell’s reliable but uninflected direction.
Amid the strong supporting cast, Addy has some fun with the gross Ron, though his role, like most, is given no extra depth by Fraser’s script beyond the obvious. Carter is as reliable as ever as the rather brutish lover, but Robbins as the wife can’t do much with her underwritten part.
Technically, film is smooth, with a light feel-good atmosphere.