The Reeler


January 24, 2007

Breaking and Entering

Minghella's morality play almost insulting in its soft-headed symmetry

I watched the last 20 minutes of Breaking and Entering through my fingers, and for someone who managed to sit through Turistas with her hands in her lap, that's a notable achievement. Director Anthony Minghella is an emotional guy -- we know that, and often, we like that -- but in his first original screenplay since 1991's Truly, Madly, Deeply, the Oscar-prone director has written a story that is almost insulting in its soft-headed symmetry. Built with the tenuous combo of big blocks of sentiment and a trembling hand, Breaking and Entering feels as though a small child was asked to solve a series of adult problems on big, Crayola storyboards, crudely connecting the dots between Bosnia, Britain, autism and adultery.

Minghella adapted his last three films (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain) from best-selling novels, and the fact that they were all period pieces may have played a key role in their success; the word "sweeping" comes to mind. But when Minghella attempts "sweeping" in service of a morality play set in modern-day London, he ends up with a script so larded up with consciousness-raising claptrap and milky, synthesized epiphanies, that unless you subsist solely on fois gras and crème brulée (and you get the feeling the film's "hero" has cracked a few caramelized crusts in his day) there's no way you can stomach it.

Jude Law is once again marshaling his long, wet lashes and silky, sulky felinity to play a man who just can’t help it. As Will Francis (of course he will!), Law is only slightly distinguishable from the lengthening line of royal cads in his rogue's gallery. Will is a London architect who has just won a contract to revamp part of King's Cross, a notoriously down-market London neighborhood. He's also stepfather (sort of) to Bea, an autistic teenage gymnast who is up all night practicing her round-offs. Bea's mother, Liv -- played by Robin Wright Penn and her square little butt (I feel like the role choice for the geometrically endowed must be limited, as it seems to me there is a very select type of woman, of character, that has a square little butt) -- is supposed to be Swedish, a choice that starts to feel like an inside joke. Liv has stopped working to take care of her daughter, and is tense and exhausted, leaving little time or patience for her to give her handsome (sort of) husband the solid eyeballing he so richly deserves. The couple can’t look at each other any more; Will feels alienated in his own home, while Liv and her light box are infuriated by his symptoms of alienation.

After deciding to locate his firm's offices in King's Cross, they are promptly robbed by a band of Balkan thieves, among them an agile teenage boy named Miro (Rafi Gavron). Miro takes Will's laptop and is touched by the happy family pictures he finds; Miro's mother, Amira, played by Juliette Binoche, lost her husband in Sarajevo and now makes her living as a seamstress working out of her apartment, where she practices piano concertos on a mock up of a keyboard (all of the working poor here have highbrow hobbies -- the African cleaning lady reads Kafka, the Romanian prostitute is a crack psychologist). Will stakes out the office in his car, often accompanied by that wise-cracking hooker, Oana (Vera Farmiga). He doesn’t want to fuck the prostitute, mind, he just wants to have a few lattes with her. After a second attempt at a break-in is made, Will follows Miro to his home, then returns the next day and is instantly smitten with Amira.

There is not much explanation given for Will's mysterious attraction, outside of the fact that he likes the shape of her mouth, and she's not his wife; he may not want to nail Oana, but ultimately he makes a prostitute out of Amira, and to her credit she returns the favor, before succumbing to her womanly nature and "falling in love," whatever that means in this crazy, cozy, mixed-up world. After both Will and Amira attempt to protect Miro from prosecution for his crime ("You steal someone’s heart," Amira tells Will, "that’s really a crime.") the situation escalates and Will is forced to confess his actions so Miro won’t be sent to prison and denied the pursuit of his dream of being an architect, just like Will. This is seriously grim stuff, Minghella has Will propped up before a parole board, including Miro and Amira, with his wife benevolently beaming at his side (she saves her minor squall over the affair for the ride home).

"Thank you for mending things for me," Will simpers to Amira, after confessing (and lying for Miro), and you wish he would go ahead and drop his eyelid into an elaborate wink; at least it would signify some level of awareness of the essentially despicable nature of ennobling this kind of cushiony ethical code. Everything works out for Will because he's Jude Law, and everyone knows Jude Law can bone the nanny and keep the girl.

Breaking and Entering seems high on its own sense of uncompromising realism: Oh, but this is the way life is, that's how the world works -- people hurt each other and keep going, adultery saves marriages, hookers return the cars they steal and the janitor is smarter than you are. I was mildly revolted that this is really someone's idea of how people conduct their lives, their marriages, or, for that matter, their affairs. "Thank you for mending things for me," the privileged, darling, inexplicably bereft Englishman says to the poor, widowed Bosnian genocide refugee seamstress. "Now run on back to Sarajevo"? That's rich.

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