Junkhearts and I got off on the wrong foot, and our relationship never recovered. I didn’t like this film from its opening frame – I didn’t even like the production notes, come to think of it – and I quickly found myself actively looking for, and finding in abundance, more things not to like about it. I had the misfortune to see this film (or, perhaps more accurately, Director Tinge Krishan had that misfortune that I saw this film) the night after watching a pitch-perfect effort in a similar style called Another Earth. Junkhearts suffers terribly by comparison.
We open, on a blurred, indistinct image accompanied by panicked, laboured breathing. The image resolves into a sweating, dishevelled man (Eddie Marsan) experiencing a post-traumatic stress attack. Frank is a British Army Vet. He lives alone with only flashbacks from a botched raid on an IRA den in Belfast to keep him company. The point of the blurred, rasping opening is to represent the claustrophobic, subterranean nightmare of such an episode, from the inside. This enterprise is undermined, though, because we are looking into Frank’s eyes and not out of them.
Frank lives alone in the East End, in a council estate not unlike the Brixton high-rise featured in Attack The Block: it even houses John Boyega as a neighbour (though he gets precious little airtime). Frank sits alone, flashes back, and drinks miniatures to escape in a way that is clearly intended to be symbolic of something, I know not what. Frank smokes. Everyone smokes, in fact, none of them glamorously; Tinge Krishan seems to think smoking, and the flamboyant stubbing out of cigarettes, will pass as a sort of cinematic shorthand for grittiness, as will dropping in and out of focus. It doesn’t.
Suddenly, we cut to a pretty young thing, dressed up to the nines, waiting in an upmarket cocktail bar. Her date arrives, late. He’s a spectacularly ugly man to be conducting an affair with such a beauty. They share a pill, and retire to a hotel. In the morning he tosses some cash on the pillow “for the hotel” and leaves.
Over the course of the film we repeatedly cut back, briefly, to this girl but never for long enough to establish more than that she is making more of a mess of her life than first impressions suggest she ought: she has a good job but no money; she’s a solo mum and she’s having an affair with an ugly, unscrupulous man who salves what conscience he has by paying her.
We cut back to Frank, who has run out of miniatures. On his way into the newsagent for more he steps over a homeless girl. A moment later she is propositioned and then robbed by a drunken banker (well, sort of robbed : the thief seems to simply take back the money he’s just given her) in one of the most preposterous scenes I’ve ever seen in a motion picture.
Junkhearts is dying a death, and we are three minutes in.
Frank re-emerges from the newsagent. Not five minutes ago he was fully wired out, mid-panic attack; now he (sullenly) befriends the girl, (sullenly) takes her to the pub, (sullenly) buys her a cola, and (sullenly) offers her a room, no strings, in his flat. Frank is a good man but, well, he’s sullen. He is nevertheless as good as his word. The pair return to Frank’s flat. The girl, Lynette, is shown to a room and offered a key (now could this be a room that was once inhabited by a special person in Frank’s life, now gone? BINGO). The room is still decorated as for a small girl. Lynette is warned off a collection of cuddly toys.
Lynette, we find out, is a sixteen year-old runaway from Nottingham, now living rough on Brick Lane. Why Nottingham? Because that’s where the actress playing her hails from, and she can’t do accents (or that isn’t authentic or something). But Lynette is no ordinary homeless girl: she’s got a mobile phone, for one thing, and it soon transpires she also has a well-connected young hood of a boyfriend. And he’s from Belfast of all places. Belfast! And to think, Frank is a Northern Ireland vet!
The boyfriend’s game seems to be to pimp Lynette out, hoping she’ll be taken in by a kindly asexual fellow like Frank whose house they can then occupy and turn into a drugs den. Frank is the victim of their wheeze. This phenomenon is known as “cuckooing” and it really happens because it has been reported in the Guardian.
The main story that now unfolds is the burgeoning, father-daughter relationship between Frank and Lynette. That relationship is thoroughly implausible, however, because it is fraudulent from the outset, and Lynette repeatedly continues breach Frank’s trust, repeatedly and fecklessly offered, in reprehensible ways. The best outcome in all of this is for Frank to call the police. He never does.
This is all meant to be authentic, gritty, East-end reality: I imagine Tinge Krishan fancies herself as a bit of a Mike Leigh. Yet it is nothing of the kind: the script is by turns needlessly contrived and then hopelessly loose; the pace alternates between pedestrian and light speed, and at the heart of it are characters and relationships that don’t develop or make sense. The voguishly low-fi framing, photography and camera techniques (always with the focusing!) adds to the sense of phoniness: this is a film with little to say which hides itself by pretending to have little to say.
Its ending is peremptory, and while the story line about the pretty girl does tie up, it does so weakly, but by this time I had long since stopped caring and was staring at my watch.
In any case, this film has been made before, only properly: Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is a harrowing, nightmarish equivalent which outdoes Junkhearts in every possible dimension. Rent that instead.
Junkhearts is in cinemas 4th November 2011.
Director: Tinge Krishnan
Writer: Simon Frank
Stars: Eddie Marsan, Tom Sturridge, Romola Garai