Breaking and Entering

| January 8, 2007

The balefully shrill cry of a fox reverberates uneasily throughout an upscale London neighbourhood, an apt metaphor for director Minghella’s study of the increasingly tense alignment of native wealth and ethnic immigrant economic disenfranchisement in rapidly developing sections of the capital, in this case the gentrification of the formerly destitute King’s Cross area. Not exactly an indigenous creature, the fox represents and underscores anxieties in established and well-heeled Londoners at the unceasing infiltration of their environment (and job market) by scores of people seeking better and more profitable lives from less-advantaged countries new to the open policies of the EU charter.
As I find most of Minghella’s work a bit of a bore (a stodgy, arid literary pompousness hangs hazy as incense in his films), I confess to admiring much of this darker-edged story of cultural clash and personal misunderstanding. Although by no means a masterpiece of any kind (more than a few characters and plot threads verge on the bad side of credibility), the messy tangle of the script works to give the film a vitality and juice missing from Minghella’s more high-bred efforts–in fact, next to their terribly adult pedigree, this film could be seen as the unruly mongrel child.
Jude Law (the British poster boy for smug self-satisfaction and entitlement) is successful young architect Will, a partner in a newly established firm set in the looming shadow of the massive King’s Cross station refurbishment, a multimillion pound urban project that stands presently (along with the 2012 Olympics program to transform much of the East of London) as the signature regeneration of the new century. A series of nocturnal break-ins soon propel Will into grim contact with a Bosnian seamstress (Juliette Binoche) and her troubled teenage son (Rafi Gavron, conflicted with great nuance). A romance with the weary Binoche commences, possibly a genuine attraction, but most definitely a reaction to an ever-increasing gulf that grows between Will and his long-standing girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn), a woman with whom he has a daughter and to whom he has an aversion to true commitment. The film deepens its investigation of the alienation between people to include not only individuals unable to communicate due to cultural differences, but also couples who stare aggrievedly at one another’s inability to speak their true selves (to this thematic rhythm you may as well add the dynamic between mother and child as Binoche soulfully struggles with the dangerous tendencies of her son). An amusing, if poignant, sequence set in a therapist’s office illustrates just how far Will and his girlfriend have drifted, their confessions and perspectives on the most essential of their partnership issues continually surprising and upending each other. They’ve drifted so far out of orbit they hardly recognize one another, hinting at the fact that as a couple they have established quite a shaky foundation (but enough is suggested that some great tug of love and carnality still links them vitally that you believe the relationship is worth saving). Binoche is certainly easier to be with: she appeals to Will’s male vanity, needing a saviour-what nags at Will about his girlfriend is that he isn’t certain she needs him. Penn brings her customary fire and forthrightness to what could be a thankless role, investing it with fury and detail; her scenes with Law ache with the gritty melancholy of their history. And Binoche (and the script) is careful not to make her character a saint: she can be driven to disreputable actions to protect her son and herself; the woman’s sense of survival has been honed through years of hardship-she may be wary, but she can be tough when the situation warrants.
One could argue that the film concludes on a soggy note, preaching tidy lessons on common humanity and the potential for good in everyone, and that it absolves some characters too easily of loathsome behaviour, but with dialogue that sustains such crispness and observational acuity I’m willing to forgive a certain lack of taut structure. Minghella nobly endeavours to impart dimension to all the characters, moving beyond the surface stereotypes that make true insight impossible and situations and people easier to dismiss-even Law convincingly struggles with a call to conscience and responsibility. The most glaring misstep is the inclusion of Law’s preposterous interactions with an implausibly well-adjusted and clear-headed Eastern European prostitute (pity poor Vera Farmiga, an actress I much admire, here embodying a figure who belongs, if at all, in a film with much less serious things on its mind-the only way to relieve the misery here is to excise this unfortunate footage to the cutting room floor; truly a mind-boggling, awkward set piece for such a major director).
Soft-pedaling and contrivance aside, the film is instructively curious about how we relate in both the urban and personal realm, and has a generous perspicacity that extends to all members of society, drinking in the sum total of experience and position. If we can only be convinced to look a bit more closely at each other, perhaps the right kind of dialogue can begin. Oh, well, at least on a soundstage, and with a carefully calibrated script.

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