London Boulevard Is Falling Down, My Fair Lady
To judge from Princess Diana’s death and Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan’s directorial début London Boulevard, goading obscenity-spewing Old World paparazzi are slimier than in La Dolce Vita, Notting Hill and, on this side, non-fiction Smash His Camera.
Monahan’s celebrity stalkers have driven wafer-thin movie star Charlotte (Keira Knightley) to distraction, in a luxury West London townhouse formerly shared with vintage-car-collecting ex-husband Tim but now sort of managed by Jordan (David Thewlis), a failed actor, producer and musician gone from “a kids’ show” to methadone to pot, a meditative hippie cynic who, once initiated, gets off on guns. In the Ken Bruen crime novel that supplies title and plot basics, she was a fading star like Swanson’s Sunset Boulevard silents Norma Desmond, but here she is young and at her peak, her image plastered everywhere, fed up, frightened and a prisoner of her fame.
The film opens with a prisoner of another stripe, Mitchel (Colin Farrell), being released after serving three years for the Grievous Bodily Harm he classifies as “an altercation.” The tight-lipped well-dressed hero intends to stay out of crime and of prison and to set straight Briony (Anna Friel), his rebellious, hard-drinking and –partying sister. But waiting at the gate of Pentonville Prison is old companion Billy Norton (Ben Chaplin), a manic petty crook who drives him back to digs in a nice house that crime boss Gant (Ray Winstone) has muscled from its doctor owner Anthony Trent (Jonathan Cullen).
Seconded by thugs, Gant is a brutal extortionist who has Mitchel back up Billy in collection of protection and extortion money from apartment dwellers but envisions bigger things for him, “you and me can be great.” Bullying the released con, the amoral explosive racist boss also makes him an accomplice after the fact but compromises himself in the process and cannot afford to lose him.
Gant is menacing, while Mitchel goes from extremes of hardness to acts of kindness. He is concerned about homeless street person Joe (Alan Williams) and offers a gratuitous warning to Penny (Ophelia Lovibond), the woman who will put him in contact with Charlotte and Jordan, who in turn offer him work. He is more or less to provide security against the photographers who are staking out their residence and making the nervous actress’ life unbearable.
This year’s Brighton Rock moved to the big city, LB opts for a related “‘60s-inflected” noir tone, though neither manages the feel (even though its swinging trendiness is dated) of that era’s Blow-Up. Fleeing to an estate soon found out and surrounded by the media, Charlotte and Mitchel are alone with zillions of candles, and one wonders how long the story can keep them out of each other’s arms and bed.
By far too stylized, e.g., Gant’s white-on-white house, the film loses itself in this would-be “dynamic visual” style over content and coherence. As they loosely plan on escape to Los Angeles, of all places, the past comes up to show that some people cannot escape it.
Mitchell is given enough reasons for his rock-hard side to take over, even to sucker punching a blonde to unconsciousness. In the end, however, he is ironically undone by a young unknowing soccer punk to whom he had extended his opposite, softer side of humanity.
The British accents are not the problem, as the ear acclimates to them. But characterization is one-note, though that of Jordan seems appropriate for him and in any case dryly humorous. Then, too, the hundred-four minutes has a number of extraneous bits, some repeated, that seem to forebode something but come to nothing: Charlotte’s painting; visits from the ousted homeowner and from shakedown cop Bailey (Eddie Marsan); irate dismissed Building and Maintenance Lee (Lee Boardman); and an ominous heavyset photographer in army jacket and sunglasses. Red herrings all, they take away from a film that cannot afford to lose anything.
Not-all-that-successful style is no substitute for substance.
(Released by IFC Films and rated "R" for strong violence, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use.)