City Paper is not for tourists
Set on opposite sides of the English Channel, with plots predicated on felonies committed by recent Eastern European immigrants, Breaking and Entering and Le Petit Lieutenant are both crime stories in a way. But where Lieutenant’s French director, Xavier Beauvois, concentrates on matters of procedure, his British counterpart, Anthony Minghella, wanders into thickets of metaphor. Le Petit Lieutenant is the better movie, though it’s not the more interesting one; Breaking and Entering is half nonsense, but it offers fresh juxtapositions and fascinating cityscapes. Ôªø
Minghella’s first original script since 1991’s Truly Madly Deeply (his best film), Breaking and Entering forsakes the literary sources and exotic locations of his best-known work. The action is entirely set in London, and the story was inspired by personal circumstances: The new offices of Minghella’s production company were regularly burglarized, a predicament that in the film shifts to Will (Jude Law) and Sandy (Martin Freeman), a pair of architects who have just claimed an old building in King’s Cross. The neighborhood is scruffy, but it’s being remade in anticipation of the new Eurostar train station that’s part of a faster link to Paris.
The search for the burglars leads to various semi-hidden subcultures that are more intriguing than Will’s spiritual crises. Will lives with his longtime girlfriend, Liv (Robin Wright Penn), and her autistic teenage daughter, Bea (Poppy Rogers). (Considering these brazenly allegorical names, perhaps the script should have been edited by someone named Noh.) A pretty, self-absorbed weasel of the sort Law usually plays, Will is unhappy at home, where Bea’s irrational outbursts are fraying his love for Liv. Bea can fully express herself only when doing gymnastics, and another adolescent acrobat soon vaults into the scenario: Miro (Rafi Gavron), a half-Muslim, half-Serb Bosnian refugee. It’s Miro’s ease on rooftops that allows a gang from the former Yugoslavia to keep hitting Will’s office, plucking the Macs as quickly as they can be replaced.
Will stakes out the office at night, which leads to a fleeting, and comic, friendship with a Russian hooker (Vera Farmiga) who boogies to PJ Harvey in the architect’s Land Rover, which she later steals. No hard feelings, though. Will, who lives in a swank London town house, is beginning to understand that he has too much, and others too little. So when he IDs Miro, he doesn’t call the cops. Instead, he follows the boy home and strikes up an acquaintance with Miro’s mom, Amira, a struggling seamstress who’s poor, anxious, and war-worn but still looks like Juliette Binoche. Will and Amira begin an affair, which isn’t altogether convincing, although Amira’s motivation is: She wants to keep her son out of jail.
There’s much, much more, including a distracting explanation of why Liv, who’s Swedish, sounds American. (If Wright Penn can’t do a Swedish accent, why not just make her a Yank?) Dualisms accumulate: There are two musicians, two gymnasts, and two cross-cultural romances, and the words “breaking,” “entering,” and “mending” all have practical as well as symbolic meanings. While Law’s presence recalls Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain and Binoche’s evokes The English Patient, Truly Madly Deeply star Juliet Stevenson makes a welcome cameo as London’s most-needed family therapist. Plus, there’s a fox prowling the city, howling to remind everybody of their animal instincts, and Ray Winstone comes and goes as a rough-hewn cop, hinting at the sort of Brit-grit movie that Minghella could never make.
What Minghella can make, however, is an almost-French picture that revels in urban fabric and form, asserting the filmmaker’s power to define space as well as character and story. With the significant assistance of French master cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, Minghella busts the mold of cool-Britannia flicks and their predictable views of Soho and Notting Hill. Arguably, the film’s true stars are the under-construction Eurostar station and Alexandra Road Housing, a late-’60s apartment project—located near that iconic address, Abbey Road—whose brutalist style is contrasted by a graceful semi-circular façade and walkway. If Will is attracted there by Amira, the camera is drawn by the building’s anti-classical verve and human-beehive quality. Paced by a score that combines Gabriel Yared’s orchestral flourishes with the kind of electro throb featured in UnderworldÔªøÔªø, the film plunges into the metropolitan current, observing multiple angles and cherishing them all. Breaking and Entering’s literary scheme is stillborn, but its London is beguilingly alive.