The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, December 16, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Breaking and Entering

Full review behind the jump

Breaking and Entering

: Anthony Minghella
: Anthony Minghella
: Tim Bricknell, Anthony Minghella, Sydney Pollack
: Jude Law, Juliette Binoche, Robin Wright Penn, Martin Freeman, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Rafi Gavron, Poppy Rogers

The more movies I see Jude Law starring in, the more I’m convinced he’s not a movie star. When in a supporting role, like as the sun-kissed object of desire in The Talented Mr. Ripley (his first collaboration with writer/producer/director Anthony Minghella), or as a heroic figure in a canvas, like the spectacle-driven Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, he has magnetism. But when it comes time to grab the center of a movie and fill it with life, he has a curiously opposite effect, the movie’s energy tends to just sink into him.

I don’t think it’s as simple as his choice of starring roles – such as in the misconceived screen adaptation of Closer or Minghella’s morose epic Cold Mountain – some essence of his person, whatever you call it that the camera captures, flickers out when viewed straight on.

This compounds the problem of
Breaking and Entering, a multicultural character study set in an area where Wealthy London and Poor London are making for uncomfortable neighbors. Already the movie has a curious relationship with its own dramatic possibilities, running up to them before stopping short, moving in other directions, bailing the characters out before they go beyond the point of no return. And Will, the character at the center of it, seems the most disconnected from all the various passions in play, the threat of loss is most distant from him. I tried to picture this movie in the 60’s starring Richard Burton, or in the 70’s with Jack Nicholson, and the result hums a little more to life but still fails to achieve liftoff. Law’s credibility gap as the heart of the proceedings just exposes the movie's shortcomings all the more.

It’s not that it’s incompetently made, quite the opposite. Minghella is an exceptional dramatist, and can inject passion and agony into domesticity as well as anyone. He’s lovely with the details, how people can invest objects with unfathomable meaning, how they can talk their way into statements they instantly regret, how the familiarity of years alters conversations. When you share your life with someone, this movie knows, there is no starting and finishing, everything is ongoing, old arguments are one bad mood around the dinner table away from jarring back to full-speed.

He’s meticulous with performance and dialogue, with his characters you never have the common problem where everyone’s voice eventually sounds like the writer’s. Listen to the bemused patois of the police detective played by Ray Winstone.

And he’s assembled a classy group of technicians behind the camera to give it as much spit-shine as possible, if they gave an Academy Award for tastefulness this movie would run away with the statuette. It’s a pity such bright and able craft should be put to the service of something that eventually amounts to so little.

The story revolves around Will – co-owner of a landscape design firm that’s working on an enormous project in the heart of The City of Cities – his family, and the family of the boy (Rafi Gavron) that breaks into his office and steals all his company’s computers and televisions the day they arrive. His own life hasn’t been cloistered from trouble, his wife (Robin Wright Penn) is almost impenetrably depressed, and her teenage daughter from a previous marriage (Poppy Rogers) has mild autistic tendencies that cause her to steal all the batteries in the house, stay up nights practicing gymnastic flips, or lose control of herself when her routines are upset.

But this burglary stirs up something in Will – an awareness of the immigrants and petty criminals surrounding him as more than just a problem to be designed around. When he’s robbed a second time he takes to spying on his own building at night, which leads to some funny but perhaps too precious conversations with an area prostitute. Movie prostitutes are always full of cage-shattering profundities and keen psychological insight and usually have suspiciously-excellent skin, it becomes a challenge for the actress to overcome the weary fantasy cliché. But this one’s played with cynical doggedness and abandon by Vera Farmiga, also on screen this year as the woman who must make an impression amongst all the heaving testosterone in The Departed. Her dexterity in that picture, and her ability to shift gears into so completely different a role here, raises hopes that she’ll soon have a central role of her own to sink her teeth into.

And eventually he captures the teenage cat burglar, Miro, in the act. What happens next is fascinating, because he does not directly confront the boy or report him, but circles around his life in a kind of daze, as if getting to know his story, getting to know the inconceivable struggles and sacrifices his mother (Juliette Binoche) lived through to get them to their poor little apartment, will provide him something he’s been missing. Unable to penetrate the bond of mutual suffering between the mother and child under his own roof, he’s seeking another.

Binoche has the meatiest role to play, at least in the sense that she’s got to sit at her kitchen table, speak in a studied accent, and help us feel the agony of a Serbian woman who married a Muslim man, and what happened to them when the Balkans disintegrated. Her work is up to its usual standard – you never doubt her strength, nor the lengths to which she’s willing to go to protect her son. This is why it’s so troubling to me that, when the movie really presents opportunities for her to do that, it pulls its punch.

Breaking and Entering
is, in many ways, a story about liberal guilt. Every plotline eventually wraps snugly around something the well-off white Englishman just Can’t Understand, and it determines to never get too ugly lest it cloud those sensibilities beyond their capacity to absorb the lesson. But that’s a poor recipe for drama – inherent in its design is the idea that Awareness does not equal Catharsis. I didn’t leave the movie thinking that Will was much wiser than he was at the beginning, if at all. And I think, Law’s performance didn’t help, but there’s only so much he can do when the movie shouldn’t have been about him to begin with.


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