Monday, November 13, 2006

Review - Breaking and Entering

Anthony Minghella has been away from London for a long time. After his debut film (irritating weepie Truly, Madly, Deeply) became a hit, Minghella quickly hightailed it to America where he has spent much of the subsequent 15 years receiving rapturous praise for unsatisfying films. He struck Oscar gold with The English Patient (the attraction of which completely eludes me) and his other epic - the turgid Cold Mountain - also picked up a few nominations despite being a complete mess of a film. Even the director’s best picture, his adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley, is only half a great movie.

Now Minghella has returned to his roots. Not only is he making his first London-set film for a decade and a half, he’s also shooting his first original screenplay in that time. The good news is, Breaking and Entering is an improvement on Cold Mountain. The bad news is, it still suffers from the flaws which have plagued the director’s films up to now - a lack of emotional involvement, poor pacing, and an overwhelming sense of self-importance which ultimately smothers everything in sight.

Set almost entirely in and around King’s Cross, Breaking and Entering stars Jude Law as Will, an architect who is at the centre of a project aimed at revitalising an area of London associated with crime, poverty and prostitution. Along with partner Sandy (Martin Freeman), Will establishes a swanky new office in a dilapidated area of the city, and after the launch party goes swimmingly, the inevitable happens - a group of free-running thieves break into the building and disappear with armfuls of electronic equipment. Will and Sandy are understandably furious - particularly as Will’s stolen laptop contained many of his family photos and films - but the insurance will cover it and they just put it down to bad luck.

However, a few nights later they suffer another break-in, and when the police fail to make any progress with the case Will decides to stake out the property himself. The tactic pays off. Will catches the acrobatic young thief in the act and gives chase, following Miro (Rafi Gavron) back to his home and catching sight of his beautiful mother Amira (Juliette Binoche). Over the subsequent weeks Will’s growing friendship with Amira gives him some respite from his depressed wife (Robin Wright Penn) and troubled daughter (Poppy Rogers), and their companionship quickly blossoms into romance; but when Amira discovers the nature of Will’s interest in her son, she resolves to stop at nothing to protect him.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Breaking and Entering is Minghella’s decision to shoot his film in the King’s Cross area. It is a part of London which is changing rapidly - its longtime reputation as a place of vice and squalor being glossed over as modern offices, apartments and the new Eurostar rail link attempt to completely rejuvenate this part of the world. As such, it is a place in a state of flux, and Minghella’s attempts to capture the essence of London by focusing on the contrasting faces of King’s Cross are generally very successful. Through slick cinematography and excellent location work, Minghella gives the film a cinematic sheen which makes it feel fresh and new. From the dingy backstreets, to King’s Cross station, to Camden council estates; Breaking and Entering admirably finds new and intriguing ways to look at places we might walk past every day. This smart visualisation of contemporary London is a treat - unfortunately, the patchy nature of Minghella’s script lets the film down badly.

“I don’t know how to be honest, maybe that’s why I like metaphors” says Jude Law late in the film, and there’s no doubt Anthony Minghella loves his metaphors. The dialogue in Breaking and Entering generally consists of metaphors, platitudes, and trite symbolism; pseudo-philosophical language which sounds nothing like real life. Much of this dialogue comes out of Jude Law’s mouth, and his overly earnest, cripplingly uncharismatic performance can’t really sell it. His Will is never interesting or sympathetic, and Breaking and Entering’s lack of a substantial leading performance badly stalls the film. The promising opening hour gradually unravels as Will continues to agonise over his infidelity, but there are still some bright spots surrounding this central vacuum.

The women fare much better than the men in Breaking and Entering, with Binoche and Wright Penn working wonders in their roles. Binoche is just superb as the harassed and desperate Bosnian mother whose love for her son is tangible; in fact, one of the best aspects of the film is the way she and co-star Rafi Gavron create a plausible and natural mother/son relationship which elevates their scenes together. Wright Penn has a difficult role to play - her constantly miserable wife could have come across as dangerously one-note - but she handles it with subtlety and skill, and her strong acting dominates the many scenes she shares with Law. Breaking and Entering also features a variety of talented actors in supporting roles, but they are severely short-changed by some of Minghella’s curious editing decisions.

For example; why does he abruptly drop Vera Farmiga’s vivacious prostitute from the film halfway through, when she has been by far the best thing in its opening hour? Why doesn’t he give Ray Winstone a proper role instead of a moped and some half-baked speeches? And why does he take the time to build the relationship between Sandy and his cleaner in the first half hour and then completely forget about it until Sandy arbitrarily mentions it late in the film? This last move is particularly hard on Martin Freeman as his infatuation is the only extra dimension his character has, and as a result he becomes a rather pointless figure.

These decisions are baffling, and Breaking and Entering’s second half is something of a chore, but I was still with the film as it approached its climactic scenes, and I was still curious to see how Minghella would bring his contrived tale to a close. Frankly, I wish I hadn’t stuck around to find out, because the final ten minutes of Breaking and Entering are so ridiculous, so head-slappingly stupid, they blow the whole picture. I have no idea why the director suddenly decided to try and fashion a happy ending for every single character from this story of crime and adultery, but his actions pretty much undermine whatever good work the film has put in up to that point. Minghella doesn’t seem to want to deal with the real, messy consequences of two families disrupted by infidelity, and instead he waves away their troubles with a single stroke of his pen. Breaking and Entering started life in the dark and dirty streets of King’s Cross, but those final ten minutes take it away to some bourgeois fantasy world which I don’t recognise. Let’s call it Minghellaland. It’s not a place I want to revisit anytime soon.