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LAWLESS HEART

A GOOD BEAT

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The thoughtful, well-made little British movie Lawless Heart is a sort of Eastenders-on-Essex, a slice of life -- or perhaps more accurately, a slice of drama, based on life -- that spends time with a group of small-towners who have numerous things in common: sex, friendship, family ties, angst, money problems, and questions about what it all means.

They come together for the funeral of Stuart, a gay restaurateur who tried to inspire them all to embrace their joie de vivre. For the most part, though, they don't have any, and so Lawless Heart is a somber riff, rewarding in its winnowing sadness, and tender without becoming maudlin (which an American version of the story would most surely become).

Stuart was 40ish, and he died unexpectedly, without leaving a will. So his slightly older sister, Judy (Ellie Haddington), now must decide what to do with his money. She could use some of it herself, for she owns a struggling cattle farm with her husband, Dan, who meets a vivacious middle-aged French florist (Clémentile Célarié) at the funeral, and who contemplates an affair with her. Equivocal and depressed -- which he thinks makes him more interesting -- Dan (Bill Nighy) ends up with only a serendipitous hummer (technically, a "French twist") from a drunken floozy when he drives home from a party.

Boyishly handsome and a touch over 30, Nick was Stuart's devoted lover and partner at the restaurant (though not on paper). Judy is fond of him, and Dan likes him, too, although he doesn't consider Nick's informal (but faithful) union with Stuart to be the equal of a marriage. Nick (Tom Hollander) is a stoic young widower, trying not to surrender to loneliness and despair. He hooks up with a ditzy gal pal (Sukie Smith) and tries to cope with a temporary house guest, Tim (Douglas Henshall), Stuart's shaggy, waggish, prodigal cousin, who's come home to Essex after eight years of picaresque foreign journeys provoked by Stuart's insistence that Tim go find his place in the world.

Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, who share the writing and directing credits on Lawless Heart, don't unfold their story straight on. They begin at Stuart's funeral, and for about 30 minutes, the story focuses on Dan. Then it jumps back to the funeral and moves forward with Nick at the center, and after that, it starts over again with Tim. Although this choice yields no profound rewards -- we're not talking about Rashomon here -- it keeps you alert for details. It's rather like finding change under the cushion -- but useful change, like quarters. At its best, this way of telling the story, with scenes that repeat and take on new meaning each time, allows us to see how first and even second impressions can deceive, and how people are more than just this moment or that.

It's especially nice that Lawless Heart approaches the issue of sexuality with such an even hand and with absolutely no dramatic fanfare. Sure, Dan's a bit homophobic, but he's just as much a part of the fabric of human diversity as Nick, and he's accepting nonetheless. And while Nick's pain is clearly at the heart of the drama, the peripatetic Tim emerges as the character who, appropriately, takes the biggest emotional journey.

"Freedom is a little bit frightening," says Dan to his French objet d'amour. "You have to make a choice." It's a ponderous exchange that comes early in the story, before the script settles into a more conversational mode. Lawless Heart has some wit, but I wouldn't dare call it a dramedy. It's probably Dan, the story's saddest sack, who gets the driest laughs, thanks in part to Nighy's beautifully nuanced performance.

In fact, all of the actors in Lawless Heart handle their roles in that lean, intelligent British way. You'll want to know what happens to every one of these characters because they're drawn with precision and warmth. A gentle, affecting, round-robin soap opera in which bonds form, disintegrate, and form again, Lawless Heart leaves you with the oddly satisfying feeling that nothing is settled for any of its people and that all of them are still at risk. * * *

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