Oscar-winning The Departed writer William Monahan’s directorial debut, London Boulevard, is one of those films that prompts the immediate reaction of ‘hmmm’: You really don’t know how to process what you’ve just seen – unless you’re an avid Colin Farrell fan, so can be rest assured that his sexy charm is in full flow in this.
Farrell is the linchpin in what first appears to be yet-another-London gangster story, complete with overblown cocky accents that even co-stars Ray Winstone and Eddie Marsan are guilty of partaking in. However, Monahan delivers such a bewildering version of the genre that flits from one plot idea to another that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what London Boulevard is trying to achieve. Even though Winstone’s in it and it has shocking moments of brutal violence, it isn’t as straightforward as a Guy Ritchie flick. It does seem to swing from one extreme to another, from larger-than-life gangster parody, to serious social affairs drama, to touching English class love story the next. In this sense, and forever shifting its goalposts, London Boulevard can claim to be different from the run-of-the-mill gangster offerings.
In accent terms, Farrell misses the mark with his Irish lit still fighting to escape. But all can be forgiven, as his ex-con character called Mitchell is a remarkably refreshing change to his usual cheeky rogue ones. Think of Farrell in Minority Report, meaning business, slightly sinister and suave, and you’ve got the picture. In fact Mitchell is like a Carter in Get Carter, deadly serious about his intentions, but deeply frustrated at the obstacles put in his path as he tries to go straight after a stint in Pentonville Prison for GBH, but gets prevented from doing so by ruthless and unpredictable crime boss Gant (Winstone). It has to be one of Farrell’s most intriguing parts to date, allowing him to really stretch his talents, playing vulnerable one moment to shockingly violent the next, whilst still finding time to get the girl in a stylish, Clooney-esque fashion.
London Boulevard has an amazing cast, which is undoubtedly due to Monahan’s reputation, and the girl in question is not from Mitchell’s rough South London manor, but a reclusive British actress called Charlotte who’s being hounded by the paps in her own Holland Park home grounds, desperate to provoke a reaction to her crumbling marriage and estranged hubby. Mitchell comes to protect Charlotte, played by Keira Knightley, who needs him as much as he needs her to make a life change. Knightley gives a decent and fragile performance that must surely (and painfully) draw on real-life experiences with the media, but she doesn’t make quite the impact you’d expect, given the trailer and poster campaign, and it’s still not clear exactly why?
Indeed Monahan may well have adapted Ken Bruen’s noir crime novel of the same name, and done a pastiche of the classic Hollywood film Sunset Boulevard – hence the film’s title and inject of Hollywood glamour in Mitchell’s new suited-and-booted appearance, but in his excitement, he’s forgotten to piece together more of how Mitchell and Charlotte come to be. There are a lot of unexplained circumstances that just ‘are’ that add to the head-scratching at the end, including the confusing period in which the story’s meant to be set, not helped by the 60s’ soundtrack, or Marsan’s 70s’ TV cop throwback that makes him look like an extra from Life On Mars.
Monahan may well capture the essence and farce of London’s underground dealings and colourful participants, which Winstone agrees with – breezing through another gangster role and picking up an easy pay check, but we’re left with a bunch of rather odd characters that only resemble some sort of purpose when Mitchell is on the scene with them. The only character that seems to fit the setting and is credible is Ben Chaplin’s Billy, Mitchell’s low-life friend who gets him into more trouble every time. Some overly snappy cutting between scenes and situations further perpetuates the plot’s disjoined feeling, never fully allowing you to absorb that’s going on and being said, and possibly, resulting in you missing some important character quips.
That said it’s co-stars David Thewlis and Anna Friel who deserve the most credit for the film’s quirky entertainment value and real wit. Friel plays Mitchell’s wayward lush and gold-digger of a sister, Briony, but with such an erratic aplomb that it keeps you on your toes, and comic Sanjeev Bhaskar’s surprising performance as her love interest, Dr Sanji Raju, nicely compliments this. However, it’s Thewlis as Charlotte’s rather eccentric, dope-smoking and reclusive house manager/failed actor/failed producer Jordan who gets reawakened by Mitchell’s presence who delivers one of the best performances, as well as a series of classic one-liners, demonstrating Monahan’s talent. Without Thewlis or Farrell, this film would have died a death alongside its victims near the start. But Jordan is another example of an unexplained character presence at Charlotte’s house, just someone that the viewer must ‘except’ as being, like an enigma.
London Boulevard is certainly sexy, stylish and brutal, and Farrell makes an impressive serious leading man. But in his efforts to make Bruen’s story more of his own, Monahan seems to have missed a key ingredient in introducing some characters and situations: a sense of purpose to the narrative. In being slightly unconventional with the genre, and maybe having too many characters involved, the film is difficult to follow in parts, whilst pandering to the genre’s stereotypes in others. Monahan may have bitten off more than he could chew as a first film project, even if his odd assortment of cast will save his first effort at the box office, as it will ignite interest.
By L G-K