A quantum leap in every respect from their gay-themed, lowbudget relationer “Boyfriends” (1996), Brit writer-directors Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger’s sophomore effort, “The Lawless Heart,” shows what nascent talent can accomplish with a sterling cast and a bit more coin. An almost Euro-flavored look at intertwined relationships in a small seaside town, this slyly humorous, cleverly constructed comedy-drama wends its way through different takes on similar time frames to a warm, inclusive ending. Essentially small pic is likely, however, to reap only modest returns outside the fest circuit, and will need smart positioning in upscale situations.
Though it’s not clear until the first rewind, film is constructed in three sections, with the characters seen from different perspectives and gaps in the narrative gradually filled in. Jumping-off point for each of the 30-minute-or-so segs is the funeral of Stuart (David Coffey, only seen in pictures and home movies), the gay partner of local restaurateur Nick (Tom Hollander).
Main character of the initial seg, though, is Stuart’s brother-in-law, Dan (Bill Nighy), a rather out-of-it depressive who runs a farm with his wife, Judy (Ellie Haddington). Briefly perked by the arrival of his cousin, the freewheeling Tim (Douglas Henshall), Dan is entranced by the attentions of a French woman, Corinne (Clementine Celarie), who turns out to be the local florist. Between discussing with Judy what to do with Stuart’s cash — as he died intestate, she wants to give it all to Nick — Dan surrenders to the idea of a fling with Corinne, but actually ends up receiving oral sex from a forthright woman (Sally Hurst) to whom he gives a lift home.
Thanks to Nighy’s gift for dry, laconic humor, and some neatly structured coincidences and misapprehensions, pic establishes a warm tone that takes familiar rural English characters (more commonly seen in TV drama) and starts gradually throwing them for a loop. Film is set in Hunter’s native Essex, southeast England, and has a strong sense of place, even though most of the interiors were shot on the Isle of Man, in the northwest.
Some of the lacunae in the first seg are filled in as the story is re-told largely from the perspective of Nick, who’s devastated by his partner’s death and, for some company, offers lodging to Tim, who was Stuart’s best friend, despite being non-gay. Aside from being discombobulated by Tim’s hippylike presence, Nick also is confused by the attentions of Charlie (Sukie Smith), a party girl who takes a shine to him and ends up introducing him to heterosexual sex.
Final section, centered on Tim, who we learn has been abroad for eight years, satisfyingly connects all the dots as he has an affair with dress-shop owner Leah (Josephine Butler), a former g.f. of his adoptive brother, David (Stuart Laing).
Though it’s a struggle in the early stages remembering all the relationships, by pic’s end the viewer feels surpisingly intimate with this bunch of amiable losers who thought they had their lives in order until one piece of the jigsaw disappeared. Script’s main weakness is a rather too insistent stress on gay tolerance, which appears forced in a movie that spins on subtle, unforced comedy and the invisible bonds of community.
No single actor dominates the easy ensemble playing, though Nighy, Henshall and (a surprisingly restrained) Hollander rate kudos among the men, while Butler, Smith and the understated Haddington are strong on the distaff side. Celarie’s character largely disappears after the first seg, which is a pity.
Production values are pro, though all in the service of the performances. Adrian Johnston’s broad, warm score adds flavor and emotional color.