Though it may take time to be recognized as such, “Heart” is destined for cult-movie status. Penned by noted scripter Jimmy McGovern (“Cracker”) and featuring a solid lineup of British thesps, this drama about a mother obsessed with her dead son’s transplanted heart plays like a modern bouillabaisse of Grand Guignol, Edgar Allen Poe and Hammer horror. Made in 1997, and only just getting a U.K. release following minor fest dates last year and a May release in Germany, pic is a tricky commercial proposition that looks likely to perform better in non-Anglo-speaking territories, where its operatic qualities can be enjoyed sans cultural baggage.
Arresting start, in which a blood-spattered woman calmly walks through a train and then the streets with something red and oozy in a paper bag, immediately signals this is not going to be one of those cozy, middle-class British dramas. After she’s pounced on by the cops at the grave of her son, Maria (Saskia Reeves) recounts her story in flashback.
Script swiftly introduces the main players in the drama — at a trim 83 minutes, this is a movie that doesn’t believe in dawdling — and gets straight down to the nitty-gritty. Businessman Gary Ellis (Christopher Eccleston) believes his TV producer wife, Tess (Kate Hardie), is having an affair, and just as she’s packing her bags after their umpteenth row, he has a heart attack that leaves him in a wheelchair.
Tess stays on but starts canoodling with Alex (Rhys Ifans), an arrogant writer. One day, while Tess and Alex are in the sack, a teenage boy, Sean (Matthew Rhys), dies in a crash caused by a coked-up driver (Anna Chancellor) and Gary is summoned to hospital for an emergency heart transplant. The operation is a success, Gary is transformed into a newly energized man, and Tess dumps Alex.
Curious about the identity of his heart’s previous owner, Gary reads about Sean’s death on the same day as his operation and tracks down Sean’s mother, Maria, who verifies she OK’d the organ donation. Gradually, however, she becomes obsessed with the idea that her son, a promising boxer, lives on in Gary’s chest, and the working-class woman starts turning up at the well-heeled Ellises’ door on all kinds of flimsy excuses. When Tess resumes her affair with Alex, mayhem and murder of Jacobean proportions ensue.
There’s a neat, late-on twist, and a final scene that cleverly wraps things up, but the most compelling thing about the movie is the way in which its quality cast manages to handle some ridiculous dialogue and behave in extraordinary ways without coming across as completely laughable. First-time feature helmer Charles McDougall makes the pic move like an express train, leaving auds no time to ponder the lunacy of the goings-on. McDougall also gives the film a highly cinematic, widescreen look — slickly shot by Julian Court and atmospherically edited in brief scenes by Edward Mansell — that further removes the plot from any kind of reality.
There’s an operatic defiance of staid British drama conventions that consistently takes one’s breath away. Gary’s operation is shown in gory detail to the strains of Dionne Warwick belting out “Anyone Who Has a Heart,” and the script even finds time for moments of straight-faced humor.
Pic is also spendthrift with its own invention, flirting with and then discarding ideas — receptors taking on the personality of dead donors, the mother as a stalking angel of vengeance. Only when the pic swings into its final bloodbath do you realize that “Heart” is simply a slick version of a ’50s or ’60s horror movie, and is closer to the classic work of directors like Dario Argento or Roger Corman than anyone in Blighty.
As the mother, Reeves moves through the picture like a young, menacing Billie Whitelaw, with a stoned expression. Eccleston is more dynamic than usual as the re-organed cuckold, Hardie spends most of the time in bed and Ifans (almost unrecognizable from his loony Welshman in “Notting Hill”) is good as the loathsome Alex. Pic is set in, and was shot around, Merseyside.