Of all the traumas we experience and the realizations we come to when someone we love dies, one of the strangest is surely the sudden discovery of how that person connected us to the other people in our lives in ways we’d never considered before. A broken strand in that web of human interconnectedness is at the heart of Lawless Heart, from the writing/directing team of Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter.
Opening at the funeral of Stuart, who died suddenly and too young, Lawless Heart picks up three strands of the web particularly touched by him in life and in death, even in a small town in Essex, England, where everyone seems to know everyone else. There’s Dan, Stuart’s brother-in-law, who’d perhaps give up on life himself if that didn’t require so much effort, played with a tender weariness by Bill Nighy (Longitude, Fairy Tale: A True Story). There’s Tim, Stuart’s childhood best friend, a free spirit who long ago escaped rural dreariness and has returned home now, on a summons, unaware at first of whose funeral he’s attending; Douglas Henshall imbues Tim with the joviality of those who use extroversion to hide a deeper insecurity. And there’s Nick, Stuart’s longtime boyfriend, struggling to deal with the emotional loss of the relationship and the financial ramifications of its ending, processes for which there are yet few social or legal guidelines. Because of Stuart’s death, the three meet three different women who challenge their ideas of themselves, of what their lives are, and of what their lives should be.
It’s as simple as that, and as complicated as that. Hunsinger and Hunter don’t so much interweave the stories of the three men as tell them in series, one after the other, so that we get only glimpses, at first, of how they influence one another and how their relationships with Stuart affect their lives without him. But it’s precisely because the full richness of the threads that Stuart sent out through each of them only show up in retrospect — for example, we learn the fullness of Stuart’s influence on Tim, whose story is told second, only after seeing Nick’s story, told third — that the impact is so powerful. These are the kinds of things that become clear only in retrospect, after all.
This is a film as heartbreaking as grief itself and as unexpectedly lovely as that warm certainty that our beloved friends and family continue to inspire us even after they’re gone. It’s almost Truly Madly Deeply-esque in its startlingly unsentimental depiction of the anguish we go through when someone close to us dies and the nearly worse anguish of learning how to move on afterward, and it snuck up on me in the same way that Truly Madly Deeply did the first time I saw it. It was only at the end of Lawless Heart that I realized how wise and knowing it is, and this abrupt comprehension simply shattered me.
Stuart doesn’t appear onscreen, except very briefly and at a certain remove in those final, stunning moments of the film, but his presence is as palpable as if he were a specter haunting his friends and family. A ghost from the past is a more tangible one in Till Human Voices Wake Us, from Australian filmmaker Michael Petroni (who wrote The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys). Set in a small town in the Australian bush, this tale — of an idyllic haunting by a lost friend — uses the remote rural setting for exactly the opposite affect as Lawless Heart: to create a dreamy loneliness, an otherworldly remove from the web of human entanglement.
Psychiatrist Sam Franks (Guy Pearce: The Time Machine, The Count of Monte Cristo) returns to the town of Genoa to bury his father, and the journey stirs up memories of his boyhood there, partly, perhaps, because of his unusual meeting, on the train en route, and ensuing budding friendship with the off-kilter and mysterious Ruby (Helena Bonham Carter: Novocaine, Planet of the Apes). Much of the film takes place in flashback, to the summer when 15-year-old Sam fell in love with his (until then platonic) best friend of long standing, Silvy. That can’t have ended well, we guess, because she’s nowhere around now that we can see, and because the adult Sam is so emotionally shut off, in contrast to the joyful, happy child he was with Silvy. And not long after we meet Ruby we begin to have our suspicions about who she really is. Is she a ghost? Is she crazy? Is she a figment of Sam’s imagination?
If we expect dramatic twists and big surprises from Voices, it’s only because Hollywood films have trained us to expect them. The pleasures of this morosely fantastical little film come not from shocking bombshells but from quiet discoveries: in the thawing of a human heart that has closed itself off from feeling anything, in the romance of nature, and especially in the sweetness of first love. Brooke Harman and Lindley Joyner as Silvy and young Sam together evoke so pure and gentle a passion and are so entirely convincing, for all their tender years, as young lovers for whom a kiss is a feast that it may well reawaken your own heart and inspire you to remember a time when every emotion was met with wonder.