In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
INTERVIEWS, FILM, BLU-RAY, DVD AND BOOK REVIEWS
DVD REVIEW - EXPOSED - **
Directed by Declan Dale, Starring: Keanu Reeves, Ana de Armas, Mira Sorvino. Crime, mystery, US, 2016, 97mins, Cert 15.
Released in the UK on Digital HD April 15th and DVD & Blu-ray April 25th by Signature Entertainment.
New York Detective Scot Galban (Keanu Reeves) investigates the brutal murder of his partner. Meanwhile, a young woman called Isabel (Ana de Armas) starts seeing albino angels and appears to be pregnant from some kind of Immaculate Conception.
Originally titled ‘Daughter of God’, the film apparently suffered significant studio interference resulting in director Gee Malik Linton pulling an ‘Alan Smithee’ and hiding behind the pseudonym ‘Declan Dale’ (presumably because ‘Dirk Diggler’ was copyrighted). Whether writer/director Linton’s original vision would have delivered a more satisfying final product is something we’ll probably never know. Certainly the original title suggests the intention was to focus on Isabel – whose story admittedly appears more interesting than the negligible murder investigation which Keanu Reeves staggers through with as much urgency as a somnambulistic zombie wading through a particularly deep pool of treacle. Keanu’s cold amoral detective is portrayed in such a detached minimalist manner I’d actually describe it as a non-performance.
The character of the murdered detective’s widow, played by Mira Sorvino, appears written (and played) as the next phase in the embittered life of her tart-with-a-heart hooker role from Woody Allen’s MIGHTY APHRODITE. Ana de Armas admittedly makes a reasonable fist of it conveying her character Isabel’s vulnerability and emotional turmoil.
The film is watchable. The photography for example manages to ring every drop of cinematic interest as it’s possible from the essentially threadbare dry drama. The problem is that having sat through it you inevitably feel cheated and unrewarded. Police corruption, Catholic faith, child abuse, rape, you name it there’s enough individual elements here for several films. Unfortunately, all these competing strands end up drowning in the muddied waters of a re-edited product with a seemingly shoe-horned Keanu Reeves cop-thriller floating precariously through it like an unconvincing rubber dingy.
Neither one thing nor the other, the film suddenly arrives at an abrupt conclusion with a supposed double twist bonus, (one of which I saw coming so clearly it might as well have been advertised on a neon billboard in Times Square). And as for the other, well in order to at least try to instil some doubt as to the identity of the killer, the actual detail of the murder isn’t revealed to the viewer until the panicky last-minute dénouement. The fact that it’s shown in the trailer seriously undermines the mystery – unless you’re Keanu Reeves’ Detective Galban however - who struggles implausibly with it for most of the films running time.
Roll on ‘Bill & Ted 3’.
Extras: Behind the Scenes