There’s a Post-It note on the light on Dan Fisher’s bedside table.
That’s for when he wakes up in a nightmarish sweat, not knowing where he is. Sydney, Australia is home. But when he isn’t there with his partner Josie, Dan is going to places and seeing things that would give anybody nightmares. He’s what we used to call a “combat photographer,” renamed “conflict photographer” for our changed times, when “war” doesn’t quite describe the traumas sweeping the planet, when photographers like Dan shift their lenses from the combatants to the victims, to the collateral damage of conflicts.
“Hearts and Bones” is a touching, earnest account of a traumatized photographer getting to know immigrants from the conflicts he’s covered, one in particular, and how it changes both men’s lives.
The Great Oz Hugo Weaving is Dan, a high-mileage photographer facing up to a coming perspective of his work back home. He’s having fainting spells and nightmares. Josie (Hayley McElhinney of “The Babadook”) drags him to the doctor. “Any head trauma?”
“Mortars, artillery,” he says. You know, the usual. “Land mines, grenades.”
An opening scene has laid out the risks in Dan’s work. He tries to help an Iraqi child who’s survived a roadside ambush that wiped out her family. A working photographer could get killed in these places. And a professional has to give up a little of her or his humanity in trying to stay sane and alive while there.
“I photograph what my conscience asks me to,” he tells an interviewer. Keeping one’s distance, though, is a part of that bargain.
Sebastian, given a soulful humanity by screen newcomer Andrew Luri, has seen Dan’s photos and heard of the coming exhibit of his work. He’s a Sydney taxi driver and a South Sudanese immigrant. He wants Dan to meet his choir. He’d like Dan to photograph them.
Dan keeps brushing him off. Sebastian says Dan was in his village, photographing a massacre. Sebastian wants to see those photos. His family was murdered that day. He wants to see them, but after that, he wants Dan to put them away.
“They always judge us,” he says, “but they never understand.”
First-time feature director Ben Lawrence has a documentary background, and the lighting, blocking and settings here have a documentary reality about them. There’s nothing arty or brisk in the way he tells this story of the crushing burden of both men’s pasts.
Both have pregnant partners. Both have secrets. Emotions run high, memories are “full of holes.” But as Sebastian imposes himself on Dan’s life, each gives the other cause to revisit pasts that they’re trying to forget.
The film reaches for the heartstrings when Dan meets this “choir,” which turns out to be a conflict refugee support group. The men in the group give their homelands as if they’re reciting Dan’s Greatest Hits — “Ethiopia,” “Zimbabwe,” “Congo, “Syria, or what’s left of it.”
The bigger themes come off better than the scene-by-scene logic and flow of “Hearts and Bones.” Dan’s constantly trying to flee these various relationships, run back to work, avoid those heart-to-hearts never finished, dodge digging through all the trauma in all those career retrospective photos.
Luri and Weaving have an easy, not-quite-intimate rapport. You can see why each character would reach for the other, despite the vast differences in their backgrounds and views of the world. Sebastian is Muslim, for instance, who knows he’ll be judged because “for each of us there is an angel to record our good deeds.”
Dan is a self-described “infidel.”
“Angels are not deterred by your lack of faith,” the Sudanese man tells him.
“Hearts and Bones” isn’t particularly graceful in the way it unfolds, and it doesn’t hide one man’s secret well enough or give the other’s the weight it seems to represent.
But some very fine acting, a few poignant scenes and a general earnestness carry it off.
MPA Rating: unrated, still photographs of violence, sex
Cast: Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri and Hayley McElhinney and Bolude Watson
Credits: Directed by Ben Lawrence, script by Beatrix Christian, Ben Lawrence. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:50