reviewed by Russel D McLean
Let’s get this up front: I love the script for The Departed. Foul, profane and complex, it was a wonder to behold. So it gave me great hope for this British-set thriller based on Ken Bruen’s wondrous early novel, London Boulevard, when I saw that the screenwriter was the same as for Scorcese’s brilliant Boston gangster flick.
If I had doubts going in, they were two fold:
1) The writer was also directing for the first time (and a good scriptwriter is not always a great director)
2) I’ve been burned by British gangster movies before. Even those with potential.
However, in its favour London Boulevard had the following:
1) Ray Winstone
2) Colin Farrell (who played a blinder in In Bruges and often surpasses my expectations of what he can do)
3) No sign of Danny Dyer (who, if he crops in a Brit gangster flick, is a sure sign of shite)
And of course,
4) the source material.
The basic premise of the movie remains as in the book. Farrell plays Mitchell, an ex-con looking to get out of the gangster life who winds up working in a bodyguard/handyman capacity for a reclusive movie star (Knightley). But his old life threatens to intrude when a local Godfather-type (the psychotically intense Ray Winstone) takes an interest in Mitchell. As the two worlds overlap, Mitchell faces some difficult choices.
The cast, for the most part, is playing ball here. Sure, Farrell’s Lahndahn accent is all over the shop (as my friend Jen remarked, “He’s a bit soft spoken”, and although he’s not quite the Irish answer to Dick Van Dyke, he comes dangerously close) but he underplays his emotions well in that stoic fashion beloved of noir anti-heroes. There’s a great moment when Mitchell is looking to take revenge on a young lad for a terrible act, but knows that by doing so he’s crossing a line himself. Farrell plays the scene wordlessly, and its surprisingly effective. It’s a great moment and one we could have done with more of. In fact, Farrell’s at his best being wordless here, knowing that his acting is all about reacting.
Ray Winstone, of course, could play a hard man in his sleep and does so here, bringing his usual presence to the screen as he slowly ratchets up his character’s psychopathy.
Of course, a major change from Bruen’s novel is the age of Kiera Knightley’s character. Occasionally, in the way she talks, she sounds as though she’s had a career far longer than would seem likely for someone of her years, but she sells the strangeness and deserved paranoia of her character well in certain scenes, and has the potential to build a more complex character than her screen time gives her. Its just a pity that the romance between her and Farrell comes apparently out of nowhere and carries all the sexuality of two people who have nothing better to do than sleep with each other. A more seasoned actress may have been able to carry this better, but as it is while Knightley has her moments, especially when her character is unable to cope with her life, she cannot carry off all the contradictions required of her and it’s hard to see why Farrell falls for her. It’s not as though she brings anything to his life other than the offer of a relationship (and not necessarily a fulfilling one). More time was needed to show how he comes to believe he can save her and become a better person. While Farrell plays stoic well enough, we needed more of a sense of connection. As it is, his scenes with his sister – played drunkenly and unsettlingly by Anna Friel – have more fizz to them, and we have a genuine sense here of his emotional connection to this character; the fact that he knows he can do nothing to change her and yet still wants to try because he loves her. And she, in her way, loves him, but cannot change who she is.
A Bruen novel was always going to be difficult to bring the screen because often his books can seem like collections of thoughts and set pieces that create a surprising whole, and one has to wonder how this can make an effective cinematic narrative. At times, London Boulevard forces you to make connections between this current scene and the previous that are not immediately obvious, or that feel as though some logical or emotional connect is missing (witness a scene close to the end of the movie that sets the final act into motion, where I had a bit of difficulty figuring why one character was suddenly so important) and this is a problem for the film’s pacing, which can be slowed down at times as you wonder about the importance of a set piece. Without Bruen’s cracklingly unique voice, the plot can at times seem disjointed and uncertain when it should be unsettling and pacy.
There is also a whole thing about Winstone’s character’s sexuality that feels thrown in for a few lines of dialogue with no apparent pay off. In fact I spent much of the movie wondering if I’d misheard the lines, particularly when his wife pops up at the end.
The other problem of course is that Bruen’s novels add real depth to characters in a way that a movie cannot. Dialogue and tone undercut scenes in a way that gives us a deep picture to what on the surface can seem cliché, and sadly there are points when the Boulevard plot does play into its South London cliché with a sloppy abandon. Quieter scenes – there’s a great moment when Mitchell is burying a homeless friend and talks about the poet Rilke – play wonderfully, but are then followed by moments we’ve sadly seen before with nothing to truly mark them out except a strong cast.
For a first time director – particularly a British one – William Monahan goes out of his way to make sure that you’re watching a movie and not, as is so often the case in British cinema, a made-for-TV feature drama. His London looks spectacular, from the faded glamour of the house where Knightley’s actress lives to the metropolitan shine of those city shots and again to the grimy underpasses and dark alleys that Mitchell walks through with far more confidence than anywhere else. There are some nice set pieces, particularly when Farrell’s stoic character finally loses the head. Including a sight gig that reminded me a little of The Limey, although I do have to wonder whether it was rip-off or homage.
In all, London Boulevard is a decent enough, competently made Brit Gangster flick, but has a big gaping problem at its centre with the romance between Knightley and Farrell that is required to bring cohesion to the rest of the plot and to make us care as an audience. There is also a problem with the plot being strangely choppy and episodic by nature, meaning the flow is often erratic, and Monahan isn’t quite able to keep a consistent enough tone to pull us along. That said, as the movie gathers steam, the final act storms to the finish; Farrell’s underplayed revenge choreographed very well indeed and it is much of this sequence that has remained in my memory, particularly the payback of an early act from the movie that comes as a bit of a jolt. The reason this last sequence works well is the sense of a ticking clock that is absent from the first part of the movie. Perhaps if Winstone’s character had been introduced earlier – as it is he who drives the eventual action – we could have had a more of a sense of pace and movement in the first two thirds of the story, and a better idea perhaps of who Farrell’s character is, who he was and who he could be, which is one of the central questions the movie attempts to explore and which it must do through action rather than relying on narrative techniques that work so well in novel form.
But while I have a conflicted sense of the movie the more I reflect on it(I really liked the violence, the supporting cast and many of the scenes with Winstone, but felt that the romance – a central element to the plot – failed to lift off in a way it really should have; perhaps Monahan didn’t quite have the verve to keep so many plots spinning at once, and something had to give) my movie going companion for the evening, Jen, said something as we came back in the car that I hope others may ask, too:
“I’ve never read this Bruen guy before. I really enjoyed that, so where would you say I should start with his books?”
Russel D. McLean is a part of the Do Some Damage blogging crew and is the author of The Good Son and The Lost Sister.