Director: Damien O'Donnell. UK. 2002. 98mins

Answering the question of how you follow an international success like East Is East (1999), director Damien O'Donnell's second feature Heartlands is a slow-burning delight that will steal audience hearts just as effectively as his broader, more obviously crowd-pleasing debut. A gentle road movie filled with quirky detours and blinding revelations, it features an outstanding performance from Michael Sheen as the underdog who finally triumphs over his own limitations. The lack of star names and obvious hooks mean that positive reviews and astute marketing will be essential to guide an audience to this quiet charmer. Once seen, it casts a beguiling spell that should ensure strong word of mouth and a substantial shelf life. The film, which had its world premiere at Edinburgh, is pencilled in for a UK release early next year.

Previously known for modest supporting roles in Othello (1995) and Wilde (1997), stage actor Michael Sheen finally gets a chance to show what he can do with a meaty leading role. His character is so meek and mild-mannered that the audience is in danger of treating him with contempt. But Sheen makes his innocence and virtue so real and appealing that you always remain on his side, silently cheering him on in his voyage of self-discovery. It is the kind of performance that wins awards and forthcoming roles in Shekhar Kapur's The Four Feathers and the Richard Donner blockbuster Timeline should only enhance his profile.

Hopelessly devoted to his wife Sandra (Robbins), Sheen's Colin spends dreary, unvarying days running her little newspaper shop and failing to notice her affair with local policeman and darts team captain Geoff (Carter). He's so passive and eager to please that he doesn't seem to mind the emptiness of his life. He even refuses to make a drama out of a crisis when the couple run off together to the darts regional final in seaside resort Blackpool, the "Las Vegas of the North". Revving up his trusty moped, he simply heads off after them, determined to win her back and restore the status quo.

Liberated from the miserable certainties of his daily routine, Colin starts to savour the wide world of possibilities that he has previously denied himself. He meets new people, finds kindred spirits and experiences life. In all those small encounters, awkward moments and little triumphs, we witness his metaphorical transformation from ugly duckling to graceful swan. There is a physical transformation too as his frizzy, haircut from hell is replaced with a slicker, cooler look.

Perhaps too parochial for some tastes, Heartlands also strives a little too hard for pathos in its early scenes. However, it really gets into its stride once Colin goes on the road, bumping up against a variety of characters and situations that all prompt him to reflect back on his own circumstances. Writer Paul Fraser combines the acute social observations of a Mike Leigh with the deadpan wit of an Aki Kaurismaki or a Bill Forsyth. His economical screenplay is filled with humorous observations, sly running jokes and offbeat characters that range from lecherous publican Mark Addy to Girl Guide leader Celia Imrie.

Cinematographer Alwin Kuchler captures the dull, grey sentence of Colin's long, lost days in the shop and the great beauty of the English countryside in colours and landscapes that lend the film a strong visual appeal. O'Donnell combines all these factors to ensure that the film's finale hits an emotional bullseye. When Colin finally faces up to his future, he is helped on his way by an encouraging nod from real-life darts champion Eric Bristow. He responds with a beaming smile that lights up his entire face and seems to warm him deep inside. Heartlands audiences will know exactly how he feels.

Prod co:Vestry Films, Revolution Films, DNA Films
UK dist:
Buena Vista Int'l
Int'l sales:
Miramax Int'l
Exec prods:
Duncan Kenworthy, Andrew Macdonald, Michael Winterbottom, Andrew Eaton, Allon Reich, Teresa Moneo
Gina Carter, Richard Jobson
Paul Fraser
Alwin Kuchler
Prod des:
Tom Conroy
Francis Parker
Kate Rusby
Main cast: Michael Sheen, Mark Addy, Jim Carter, Ruth Jones, Celia Imrie, Jane Robbins, Mark Strong