Like The Big Chill, Lawless Heart begins with the funeral of a man the other characters all cared about, but Hunter and Hunsinger are not about to launch a political and personal nostalgia-fest. Instead, they use the accidental drowning of a magnetic young man named Stuart (David Coffey) to disturb the emotional balance of their three protagonists, then propel each of them toward some measure of self-knowledge.
In the first vignette, Stuart's prudish brother-in-law, a married, middle-aged farmer named Dan (Bill Nighy), finds himself attracted to an adventurous Frenchwoman (Clementine Celarie) he meets at the funeral. Long imprisoned by caution and convention, Dan is suddenly overwhelmed by desire, and that gives him a view of his own follies and deep-seated bigotries. The second episode focuses on Nick (Gosford Park's Tom Hollander), Stuart's grief-stricken lover. He, too, enters an unlikely (and ill-considered) alliance -- with a scatter-brained yet appealing girl named Charlie (Sukie Smith) -- but in the end turns for comfort to Stuart's sister (Ellie Haddington). When the film's point of view shifts once more, it takes in Tim (carrot-topped Douglas Henshall), one of Stuart's boyhood friends. A rootless wanderer who fancies himself a ladies' man despite his empty pockets and unnoticeable looks, he unexpectedly hooks up with a shopgirl named Leah (Josephine Butler) who's been in the picture all along, just beyond his blurred vision.
Each of these understated, deceptively simple stories is linked to the others (the common characters rise and fall in importance as they circulate through the vignettes), and each contributes nicely to the film's liberating worldview. To wit: Neither our own expectations nor the strictest self-imposed taboos can withstand true emotion; set free by feeling, we grow and thrive as the old limits within us are erased. That won't always make us happy, but we career on.
At bottom, Lawless Heart is an extremely serious film, but it's never gloomy or heavy-handed. Instead, Hunter and Hunsinger arrive at their seriousness through irony and comic deflection, like magicians dazzling an audience with major sleight of hand. From the chaos of an ill-planned house party we get new insight into life's essential unpredictability. In Dan's frightened rapture we find as much humor as sadness. In death, we find a joke. In a joke, we find darkness.
It doesn't hurt that cinematographer Sean Bobbitt has shot each of the three stories in a noticeably different style, from hip and hard-edged to classically restrained, in order to suit the respective protagonist. It doesn't hurt that this perfectly chosen cast -- none of them well known on this side of the Atlantic -- is so able, down to the last detail. Nighy is particularly effective in his portrait of a man who comes to be startled by his own veiled self-hatred. The directors encouraged their actors to improvise, and the results are almost spookily natural.
It's even more encouraging that Hunter and Hunsinger have enlarged the view of their gay-themed 1996 feature debut, Boyfriends, to include this ambitious second film's wider variety of genders, social classes and political temperaments. Daring in its dramatic structure and keenly observant of human nature under stress, Lawless Heart is that rare gem made on a shoestring, using subtlety and intelligence for working capital.