sun 18/08/2019

London Boulevard | reviews, news & interviews

London Boulevard

London Boulevard

Despite a strong cast, London's latest gangster movie fires blanks

Colin Farrell as Mitchell: A role that suits him as well as his Savile Row tailoring

They say that crime doesn’t pay, yet the criminal underworld has certainly been good to William Monahan. His slick screenplay for 2006’s Boston-Irish gangster flick The Departed won him an Oscar, and now London Boulevard – a mean-streets-of-south-London, Lock, Stock knock-off, casual knifing of a film – sees him make the upgrade to the coveted writer-director credit. With Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley and Ray Winstone along for the ride (and the likes of Anna Friel and David Thewlis squashed into the back seat), Monahan takes a cinematic tour of London’s seamier sites and scenarios, pausing only for periodic refreshments of drugs and brutality.

Freely adapted from Ken Bruen’s novel (itself a reworking of 1950 film Sunset Boulevard), London Boulevard follows newly released criminal Mitchell (Colin Farrell) as he attempts to go straight. Working as hired muscle for a reclusive Hollywood actress (Keira Knightley), he must balance this new and bizarre world of privilege with his old gangster ties. When he catches the attention of Gant (Ray Winstone), a sociopathic crime boss keen to derail Mitchell’s new career, he is forced to fight fire with fire-power, struggling against his unwelcome gift for violence and his unhelpful craving for justice.

keira-knightley-london-blvd“I was a criminal. Presently I’m just unemployed.” It’s a familiar enough film conceit, the bright young man fallen among rough company just trying to catch a break, and one that suits Colin Farrell almost as well as the Savile Row tailoring he sports rather unexpectedly throughout the film. The same winsome eagerness and innocence he brought to novice hitman Ray in In Bruges is interiorised here, played out in rather more muted shades. Yet set against a trademark bruised-and-bonily-vulnerable performance from Knightley (pictured right) as Charlotte, the awkwardly underwritten, stop-start interaction recalls Eddie Izzard’s sketch on English cinema: uncomfortably stilted, with tiny gestures invested with disproportionate emotional significance.

Salvation comes in the grubby form of David Thewlis as Jordan, Charlotte’s RADA-educated house manager and beneficiary of most of Monahan’s characteristically spare script. A polymath with a penchant for drugs, revenge killings and the dramatic arts (“I was on a kids’ show. Then I was on Methadrone. Then I was a producer”), his languid delivery of lines and punches is a carefully judged delight, a forceful reminder of just how good – and underused – an actor Thewlis is. Cameos from a glowing Anna Friel (in familiar Golightly mode) and Sanjeev Bhaskar, enjoyable in and of themselves, seem awkwardly token, grafted with little finesse onto the main skeleton of the plot.

While not given anything like Thewlis’s dialogue to work with, Ray Winstone (pictured left) shows up and gamely plays a steelier version of himself. Gant, traumatised we eventually learn by childhood abuse, is a thoroughly brutal killer whose single human instinct is an odd weakness for confessional monologues prior to murder. It’s a nice touch, but one that still fails to bring him even close to Michael Gambon's joyously criminal patriarch from Layer Cake, a film whose influence (without wishing to reveal too much) is pervasive, and perhaps most keenly felt in London Boulevard’s ending.

As a director Monahan’s choices are largely sound. Chris Menges’s cinematography, with its dark palette and interior focus, gives London Boulevard a distinctive visual character that sets it apart from Snatch, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and all other British gangster films. Losing the divide between the estates of Peckham and those of Holland Park in his elegant images, Menges greatly helps to shape Monahan’s, at times, wandering narrative. Yet there are moments where inexperience jars. Visuals become too telling, too convenient: an expositionary shorthand. Our hero knocks back not vodka from the bottle, but milk; a table laden with coke-dust and the detritus of drug-taking becomes a familiar fanfare for scenes in Gant’s world.

London is overdue a really splendid gangster movie, one that pays its dues not only to the dirt and the violence but also the wit and authentic eccentricity that walks our streets. This is not that film. Credit should go to Monahan for joining the likes of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn in mounting some guerrilla resistance against the Farrow & Ball’d, Cath Kidston’d, Richard Curtis-penned world that London has all but become on celluloid, but it still doesn’t change the fact that this is a tough movie to get excited about. If it’s not quite the operatic disaster that Revolver was, it’s definitely no Gangster No 1 or Layer Cake either.

Salvation comes in the grubby form of David Thewlis as Jordan - a polymath with a penchant for drugs, revenge killings and the dramatic arts

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