Breaking and Entering

2007-03-19 16:03

When Will (Jude Law) and his friend Sandy (Martin Freeman) relocate their architecture firm to King’s Cross in northern London, they have already been warned about how rough the area is. What they don’t expect is to be cleaned out the first night, and again only days later. Fed up, Will and Sandy begin watching the building in shifts, hoping to catch the thieves. When one of them finally appears, a young Bosnian refugee named Miro (Rafi Gavron), Will chases him back to the apartment he shares with his mother Amira (Juliette Binoche). Rather than reporting Miro, Will decides to investigate further, and befriends Amira on the pretext of giving her tailoring work. But Will, who is stuck in a strife-torn relationship with his long-term girlfriend Liv (Robin Wright Penn), soon finds his feelings for Amira taking an unexpected and dangerous turn.


It always feels churlish to criticise a filmmaker for taking their work in a new direction. Great creativity most often comes from great risk, and Anthony Minghella is certainly taking a risk with his new film. His last three projects – lush period dramas like The English Patient - have been showered with the world’s most prestigious awards. To switch to a grim study of urban alienation like Breaking & Entering takes guts. Unfortunately bravery doesn’t necessarily translate into a watchable film.

Minghella has certainly got the alienation part down pat. None of the characters in the film seem to like each other or their lives very much, and Minghella has painted London in its most unflattering aspect, all flickering neon lights, filthy alleys and scarred concrete. Compared to the full-blooded melodrama of a film like Cold Mountain, Breaking & Entering feels distant and unattainable.

This kind of detachment can be a useful canvas on which to paint drama. Alienation is not an ideal human condition, and watching characters battle with it, even unsuccessfully, can be deeply satisfying. But we have to believe in the battle - without emotional credibility, it becomes empty posturing.

And it’s here that Breaking & Entering fails. The talented cast and well-written dialogue make the characters seem realistic, but too often they behave in a convenient or flat out illogical manner. Why wouldn’t Will report Miro as soon as he found out where he lived? Why would a conservative architect befriend a prostitute (played with panache by Vera Farmiga), only to have her steal his car? Why would she then return it, untouched, a few days later? The film is littered with these mysteries, none of which add anything to the plot except implausibility.

Then there is the clumsy undertone of the new class struggle playing out in London, and the first world in general. Instead of rich versus poor, now we have invisible immigrants versus a complacent middle class. But even here Minghella seems to have very little to say except “there is a struggle”. He could have allowed the conflict between the characters to escalate - probably the most logical (not to mention dramatic) path – but instead he short-circuits the tragedy in favour of a farfetched resolution.

Our disappointment might have been salved by some sentiment or even a little humour, but the film remains stubbornly sulky and self-absorbed throughout. Minghella has never been at home with levity, preferring more dramatic (or melodramatic) modes, but his work has never missed a sense of irony more keenly.

However frustrating it may be, Breaking & Entering can’t be dismissed entirely. The excellent cast make the most of the material, giving understated and nuanced performances, and the film has many flashes of human truth. Minghella’s visual style has always been a little dressy and self-conscious, but at least his films are always interesting to look at.

In the end, though, the film has to be judged a failure. Had an unknown young writer/director made Breaking & Entering, critics would undoubtedly have applauded such promising work. But this is an Oscar-winning director and Oscar-nominated writer. We are entitled to expect more than a slew of half digested ideas and amateur sociology.

- Alistair Fairweather
Anthony Minghella wowed the world with The English Patient and Cold Mountain, but his sulky new film never lives up to its promise.

Chris 2007/01/19 11:35 PM
Breaking & Entering I have to say that at more than one juncture I wanted simply to get up and leave, so abysmal did I find this film. About the only good thing is the great photography. Not at anytime did I feel connected to the characters or care about their sorry lot. I thought that apart from being eye candy for ladies, Jude Law was absolutely terrible. This is one to forget and quickly!
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