The options for movie lovers who have already seen every Oscar nominee are few this month: You could travel to one of the February film festivals taking place in Berlin, Belgrade, Adelaide, Tehran, Rome, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, San Jose, Miami, and Portland, Ore. You could watch a guy leap around in a catsuit in ”Daredevil.” You could witness a grown man jiggle in his birthday suit in ”Old School.” Or you could sample three small films, recently out in limited release, as a kind of minifest — mildly international, yet small and Sundance-y enough to fit into a Starbucks cup with room for nonfat foam.
”Lawless Heart,” by U.K. writer-directors Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger, is wee and doggedly life-affirming — very Lifetime for Gay Men and the Women Who Love Them. A fellow drowns in a boating accident off the Isle of Man, and while his near and dear mourn, we learn about the broken rules in their lives: The deceased’s lover, Nick (Tom Hollander), finds distraction in the kooky neediness of a local party girl (Sukie Smith), a brother-in-law (Bill Nighy, from ”Blow Dry”), married to the deceased’s sister, is flirted up by a local florist (Clementine Celarie), and so on.
The filmmakers reinforce their theme of ”lawlessness” by unraveling and then rebraiding the narrative to emphasize how one shared emotion, like grief, is actually a plaiting of individual, private longings. But the storytelling structure is far more interesting than the story itself. And the elegiac pictures of boats and water are, dismayingly, most engrossing of all.
There’s also water, water everywhere — and strands of poetry clinging to the plot like slimy kelp — in the precious Australian supernatural romance ”Till Human Voices Wake Us” by writer-director Michael Petroni. The three words that complete the phrase are ”and we drown,” which, as the class knows, is the final line of T.S. Eliot’s ”The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Petroni takes the poem at face value, turning diaphanous literary imagery opaque and literal in the love song of Sam Franks (stone-faced Guy Pearce), a psychiatrist who returns to his childhood home, remembers a girl he once loved, and meets a mysterious woman who calls herself Ruby (distressed-looking Helena Bonham Carter). At one point Ruby is actually ”wreathed with seaweed red and brown” herself.
Human voices tell me to make sure that no one confuses ”Lawless Heart” with ”Open Hearts,” a striking Danish drama of tragedy and adultery, directed by Susanne Bier. True, this story also couldn’t be more Lifetime (or ”Days of Our Lives”): A car accident wrecks a young couple’s wedding plans, and while her paralyzed fiance (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) rages in a hospital bed, the disconsolate bride-to-be (Sonja Richter) turns to a staff doctor (Mads Mikkelsen) for solace — and soon for passion. But honesty, conveyed by the actors’ unsentimental performances, Anders Thomas Jensen’s truth-seeking script, and an effective use of the Dogma 95 style of hand-held filmmaking, invigorates Bier’s well-made film. Indeed, discovering such a small pleasure is the kind of experience that rewards film lovers who browse with open eyes as well as hearts. Lawless Heart: B- Till Human Voices Wake Us: C- Open Hearts: B+