I was walking on 57th Street the other day, heading toward the Hudson River, and noticed the side-street façade of the new Time Warner building, constructed at great expense just off Columbus Circle, for the first time. “It looks just like the Metreon in San Francisco,” I thought to myself. Later, walking down Broadway in Times Square, the glass-fronted building that will house the M&M’s Store caught my eye. “And this looks just like Las Vegas.”
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s news that New York City is being systematically rebuilt in a more lucrative configuration for tourists and high-end consumers. But I may well have been thinking about this stuff recently because I just saw Breaking and Entering, director Anthony Minghella’s new film about love, gentrification, and emotional politics. In more than 10 years of writing about movies online, one of my favorite pieces of email came in response to a short article I wrote about the then-new Loews E-Walk theater in which I complained, mildly, about “New York City’s version of the Vegas Strip.” Indignantly, the correspondent seemed bent on defending the complex against any perceived slight, going so far as to praise the food at Chevy’s, which I had called “mediocre.” (Clearly he wasn’t a serious thinker.) The point is, when I Googled this guy’s email address, I quickly found that he was attached to the property-development firm that spearheaded the E-Walk project.
And now I realize that he could have been the landscape designer Will Francis, Jude Law’s character in Breaking and Entering — deeply involved in a project of urban renewal, dispensing lofty doublespeak (Will’s firm has a manifesto made up of impenetrably verbiose hoo-hah), and a wee bit defensive about the larger implications of cultural clear-cutting in an inner city.
The event that sets Breaking and Entering in motion is an act of simple burglary. Will’s firm is involved in a massive construction project in the King’s Cross neighborhood of Central London, which became known by the 1980s as a center for the drug and sex trades. In a goodwill gesture — perhaps a grandstanding one — the firm has actually moved its offices to the area, ignoring the local seediness in favor of a vision of the cleaner, shinier future that awaits. But a group of immigrant children who live nearby, athletic scamps who hop from rooftop to rooftop in the parkour style (also seen in District B13), figure out a way to enter through the skylight and breach the security system, allowing them to cart off a truckload of Apple gear. Will himself seems to take the break-in personally.
Breaking and Entering is a tale of two neighborhoods — the dilapidated locale where Will spends his working hours, and the more upscale Primrose Hill neighborhood where he lives with his wife, Liv (Robin Wright Penn) and their autistic daughter. Crucially, it’s also a tale of two families, and Will’s dogged pursuit of the little criminals leads him into a sexual relationship with Bosnian refugee Amira (Juliette Binoche) that provides the second incidence of trespass alluded to by the film’s title. Breaking and Entering quickly becomes a film about acts of personal transgression, and of self-defense.
Jude Law tends to do good work for Minghella, and it’s a bit of a relief to see his performance dialed down a few notches from the brooding, solipsistic intensity he brought to Minghella’s previous Cold Mountain. He delivers a thoughtful, fairly credible portrait of a man suffering from a mild (but not all-consuming) obsession, and then pulling himself out of it. Binoche may not seem like the ideal choice to play a Serb, but she’s swell in the role anyway. Her heavily accented English sounds just fine to these American ears — there’s no giveaway that she’s actually a stylish Frenchwoman — and, importantly to a story that’s so intimate in scope, she brings on the carnality.
Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme’s work here is fairly spare, but exquisite. Scenes taking place out on the mean streets, especially after dark, are full of color, but the palette has been muted — it’s interesting to contrast the photography in this film with Chris Menges’ more intensely saturated color work in Notes on a Scandal, another view of London life as seen from two distinctly different neighborhoods. And when Minghella’s attention turns to Will’s home life, the color palette becomes downright sedate. A man naturally has responsibilities to the people he loves, but in this context it’s easy to understand how he could be led astray by the siren call of Amira’s multicultural neighborhood and her Slavic-inflected worldliness. And, one suspects — especially with Liv’s maternal skills largely focused on wrangling their daughter — there’s a motherliness in her that directly appeals to the oversized little boy in him.
The narrative is filled out in ways that are perhaps overly cute. Ray Winstone is the cop who understands the undercurrents of the situation all too well, and becomes an advocate for mercy when the law finally catches up with one of the young burglars. (It’s an interesting bookend with his performance in The Proposition, for sure.) And Vera Farmiga has a smallish role as a local — yes — prostitute who hops into Will’s car, bums cigarettes, and leaves the scent of perfume on his collar. (At one point she disappears with his Land Rover.) The characters themselves may be too good to be true, but there’s no pretense that Breaking and Entering is an example of gritty realism. It’s a diversion — with a moral lesson.
All the film’s sweetness and generosity finally becomes cloying once Minghella paints himself into a corner and it becomes clear that he’s reluctant to allow his protagonist to suffer in any real way for his clear misdeeds. (He eventually means well, you see?) This story’s ultimate resolution is saccharine. (Even the hooker turns out to have a heart of gold.) But it’s still heartening to see Minghella step away from the tendency toward the epic that led to the weirdly impersonal disappointment of Cold Mountain. And if Breaking and Entering feels like a lecture, at least it’s from the heart — care for your neighbors, don’t tread thoughtlessly through their lives, and find real happiness in your own capacity for forgiveness. Et cetera. Maybe it makes me a sap, but, yeah, I’ll take it — especially when it’s executed as beautifully as it is here. B+