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.
DVD REVIEW - THE WHITE KING **
Directed by Alex Helfrecht, Jorg Tittel. Jonathan Pryce, Lorenzo Allchurch, Agyness Deyn, Greta Scacchi, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Fiona Shaw and Olivia Williams. Thriller, UK, 89 Mins.
Released in the UK by Signature on the 23rd January.
THE WHITE KING is an adaptation of Gyorgy Dragoman’s award-winning novel and examines life in a fictitious dystopian world that manages to resemble elements of both the world we know and fascist regimes of recent history.
Following an impressive animated opening sequence, we meet young boy Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch) in a seemingly idyllic world, playing chess and football with his parents by the lake. Darker overtones are suggested by an out of place CCTV camera, and soon afterwards, Djata’s father is taken away to prison for reasons that are never made fully clear.
What is soon established and then examined is life in what we come to learn is ‘The Homeland’, a dictatorship like independent state that has a fairly non-descript sense of time or place. Certain elements heavily resemble Nazi Germany, from the Hitler youth like schooling to the concentration camp style housing. Equally though, the technologies that we receive glimpses of are futuristic and the fusion of the two elements merge well to demonstrate a key theme of the film – The Homeland could be a place from any period of history, in our past or, more terrifyingly, in our near future.
As Djata is forced to live alone with his mother (Agyness Deyn) the true reality of his situation is slowly revealed to his young eyes as he encounters violent gangs, a repressive regime and comes to learn a little of the history of his home through his grandfather, Colonel Fitz (Jonathan Pryce).
Unfortunately, the plot itself doesn’t really develop much further than Djata’s search for his father and the few answers he does find are relatively inconclusive and actually serve to raise even more questions.
If you contrast this to a film like Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN (a frighteningly relevant film in these time), you can see where the problem lies. Whereas that had the through narrative of saving a pregnant lady in an infertile world and subsequently allowed the worldwide political themes to feed and surround a very personal plot, THE WHITE KING lacks the narrative drive to really guide the audience through the thematic elements of the dystopia.
As a result it does lack a sense of subtlety, with the filmmakers exploring the ideas through occasionally on the nose dialogue and more interest in place than plot.
There is no denying that there are some terrific ideas set-up through the look and feel of the film, but it leaves you wanting more story development and perhaps a further delve into The Homeland’s past and future.