Poor Charles McDougall. He's the director of Heart, yet this will forever be referred to as a "Jimmy McGovern film", despite the fact that the creator of Cracker and The Lakes only wrote it. Yet from the opening shot of Maria (Reeves) clutching a bloody bag, through to the satisfying yet uncomfortable ending, it looks and feels like a McGovern film, populated by McGovern people. After all, Christopher Eccleston appeared in Cracker and Hillsborough, while McDougall directed both. Add a Northern location (Liverpool) and you're on familiar, queasy and uneasy McGovern territory. Similarly, there's lots of swearing, a fair old dollop of sex and it's all fairly bleak stuff, counterpointed by bursts of natural wit. Yet Heart makes Cracker look as tame as the Teletubbies by comparison.
By starting with the ending, this lean thriller manages to be more intriguing than it would have been with a standard, linear story. After the gory opening, we quickly learn that Maria's lost her teenage son in a car accident and that his heart - which she's been carrying - was transplanted into a pilot named Gary (Eccleston). So we know from the outset that the recipient must kick the bucket before the film's through - - but how, and why, and who?
Gary's the fiercely jealous husband of Tess (Hardie) and he stresses himself to the point of death by worrying whether or not she's been sleeping with her co-worker Alex (Ifans). On this side of the story is a tangled web of three-way jealousy and suspicion, with the equally excellent Eccleston and Ifans squabbling over Hardie.
Initially, this plot-line remains separate from that concerning Maria - a single mother who's devastated by the loss of her son. Yet Gary's recovery is so amazing to him that his life is, at first, completely transformed. He becomes convinced that he must meet the donor's mother, hoping she'll find solace in the fact that her son's death has improved another person's life.
So the two strands converge: one where the heart is a symbol of love, the other where it's a mechanical pump that's revived Gary's flagging life-force. Of course, events soon take a darker course, as Maria begins to obsess about her dead son's still-beating organ.
Heart will doubtless have Middle England howling in dismay at how relatives of donors are treated: Maria is regarded sympathetically by doctors only until she signs the consent form - - then she's ignored. And the fact that all the characters are dominated by petty and jealous emotions makes it as far removed from Hollywood's happy-ever-after mentality as you can get.
But it's refreshing to see a drama that's so dark and bleak and British, especially one that contrasts the blackness with sharp humour, gives an ensemble cast of fine homegrown talent plenty to get their teeth into and - - for once - - isn't set against the overworked backdrop of London. Not a date movie then, but all the better for it.
Gripping from start to finish, Heart makes you forget you're watching a film, grabbing you without visual trickery or a thumping soundtrack. McGovern's on the edge as always, telling an incredible story that'll appal and offend as many as it will entertain.
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