REVIEW: Colin Farrell Slow Burns Through Smart, Stylish London Boulevard
I'm sure there are more exciting things in life than watching Colin Farrell, dressed in a sleek, dark suit, weave through the streets of London behind the wheel of a saucy black convertible, the Yardbirds' "Heart Full of Soul" rumbling on the soundtrack. But as random weekend movie pleasures go, I'll take it: Farrell is the star, and the unassuming center, of William Monahan's nervy, noir-inflected thriller London Boulevard.
London Boulevard -- the directorial debut of screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed, Body of Lies) -- has some rough edges: There are some characters we care about whose deaths are handled a little too cavalierly -- Monahan might have given their demises more weight or at least a dash of grace. But the movie has a brisk, glamorous style. I've noted some people carelessly comparing it to Guy Ritchie's films, because it's set in London and features gangsters, I guess. (Lord knows Ritchie was the first guy to think of that.) But it reminds me more of Shane Black's Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, though ultimately it's darker and more raggedy around the margins. Still, Monahan, like Black and unlike Ritchie, has some feeling for his characters. (Monahan adapted the screenplay from a novel by Ken Bruen.) Who they are and what they do is less important than what they feel. That makes a difference in a movie that offers a variety of shootings, stabbings and head crackings.
And having Colin Farrell as your star doesn't hurt. Farrell plays Mitchell, a guy who's just been sprung from jail for getting involved in what he calls "an altercation." Mitchell is a scrapper -- he'll fight when he needs to, and it sometimes gets dirty. Mitchell is that archetypal hood who's trying to go straight. I know, I know, you've seen that before. But it's Farrell's face that makes a difference. Maybe it's the way he conveys nearly unbearable worry and woe with just a slant of those deep-charcoal Groucho eyebrows -- this is a face with a conscience behind it. I realized that, in this picture at least, Farrell reminded me of an even sexier Bob Hoskins. (I say "even sexier" to allow for the fact that Hoskins is plenty sexy in his own way.)
Mitchell resists getting drawn back into the crime game, but a hapless hood buddy (played by Ben Chaplin), pulls him back in, placing him squarely in the sights of a big crime boss (Ray Winstone) who wants Mitchell for his own, perhaps in more ways than one. Meanwhile, Mitchell is trying out for -- and just may accept -- a job as a handyman and bodyguard for a rich, eccentric, reclusive movie star, Charlotte (Keira Knightley), who's perpetually hounded by paparazzi. Charlotte huddles, wrapped in a droopy cardigan, in her Holland Park house -- it's filled with Francis Bacons, which gives you some idea of both her mental state and her taste in décor. But Knightley conveys the sense that Charlotte wants out of these prisons, both the exterior and interior ones. At one point she asks Mitchell tentatively if he'd like to go out to a restaurant -- "like people," she adds. As Charlotte, Knightley's face is filled with hollows. She's just a few steps away from becoming one of her screaming popes, but she has something those popes don't: A whisper of the sense that life could be better.
You just know Charlotte and Mitchell are going to fall in love, and that's all right. You also know that Winstone's classy-gauche, unapologetically racist gangster (when he goes to a restaurant and wants to order wine, he dismisses the black waiter and asks instead to see "the Somali -- the wine guy") is going to throw a bloody wrench into the works, and that's all right too. I don't think it's a liability that London Boulevard is somewhat predictable. Its pleasures lie in watching the characters reveal their true colors, including a wonderful David Thewlis, who plays the druggy caretaker of Charlotte's house. And the terrific character actor Eddie Marsan shows up in a small, slimy role.
The violence in London Boulevard is deftly handled -- in some cases, it could actually stand to be a little more exploitive. And a subplot involving Mitchell's boozy but winsome sister (played by Anna Friel) and a doctor who's compassionate toward criminals (Sanjeev Bhaskar) could have been more fully developed and more gracefully handled, particularly since these two actors are so charming together.
But London Boulevard, even though it's set in the present day, has an aura of '60s stylishness about it. It was shot, beautifully, by one of the great unsung -- at least in comparison to near-household names like Roger Deakins and Janusz Kaminski -- cinematographers, Chris Menges. (Menges's credits include The Reader, The Mission and The Killing Fields; he won Oscars for the latter two.) Menges makes London look both timeless and modern. And in a clever, visually arresting touch, Mitchell keeps encountering giant posters of Charlotte's face everywhere he goes: It haunts him both literally and figuratively. The credits tell us those images are the work of the great bad-boy fashion photographer David Bailey. No matter how you ultimately feel about London Boulevard, it's worth noting that this is the work of a first-time director who surrounds himself with the right people. That's not just an advertisement for his good taste -- it's a mark of humility, too. The confidence of London Boulevard never tips into cockiness. This is style with some intelligence behind it.
Follow Stephanie Zacharek on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.