London Boulevard (2010)
November 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
Written and Directed by William Monahan
Starring Colin Farrell, Ray Winston, Ben Chaplin, Keira Knightley and Anne Friel
British gangster films come a dime a dozen. It’s hard to say when the trend began, with British gangster classics being around as far back as the original Get Carter (1971) and continuing on through the present, with stylistic interludes such as Guy Ritchie’s manic trifecta of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000) and most recently and with the smallest cult following, RockNRolla (2008). In between there have been innumerable films of either less remarkable quality or popular staying power. The latest British Gangster film to come out is London Boulevard, written and directed by William Monahan, Oscar winning screenwriter of the Martin Scorsese new classic gangster flick The Departed (2006), itself a translation of Hong Kong’s most celebrated new classic gangster film series Infernal Affairs.
What Monahan has given us this time around in London Boulevard is something more closely resembling The Long Good Friday, a mature, thoughtful gangster film that isn’t interested in violence for the sake of violence. His characters are down to earth, sensitive and self-aware. There are no true psychopaths to be found in this introspective piece about people trying to find themselves amidst the unwanted chaos of their chosen professions, with Farrell starring as Mitchel, a recent parolee who stumbles into the job of the new bodyguard/man servant to a reclusive model-actress played by Keira Knightley as a thoughtful, down to earth girl who’s psyche has been shattered by the incessant pressures of being famous. Knightley is believable, probably drawing on her own parallel experiences in a somewhat meta performance given her own career. Shes quite sympathetic, eschewing any arrogance or artiness for a character resembling a normal human being ‘cursed’ by her beauty and success. There’s even a very direct allusion, lacking virtually all subtlety, to Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s assassin and supposed rabid fan.
Farrell is very good here, sporting salt and pepper hair that is commensurate with the maturity of the role, a part in which he must not ooze sex appeal or menace, but understated charm and an indecisive personality. A man without direction, but with compassion that can either enrich him, as in the case of a potential romance with Knightley wounded thespian, or perish him, as with his former crime lord boss, played by Ray Winston.
Speaking of Winston, he leads the pack of paint-by-numbers gangster characters; a well dressed, well spoken man who has a way of spinning course language into cockney poetry as he rules his empire with an iron fist, while underlings cower and act befuddled at how brilliant and ruthless he is. One wonders how these cinematic criminal organizations flourish when the drop off in talent from the top of the heap is so precipitous. Ben Chaplin shows up as a shifty, spineless protection collector who’s all bluster and no balls. Again, these are paint by number characters.
The nicest thing about the film is David Thewlis as Knightley’s friend and sometimes lover, an equally reclusive and idiosyncratic actor who has the personality of an air headed hippie, but whom apparently possesses the skills and grit to match London’s most ruthless gangsters if the time calls for it. It’s a curious, uneven character by the writer’s hand, but a fully realized person by the talents of Thewlis.
We also get semi-cameos from the who’s who of British gangster supporting players in Stephen Graham (currently starring as a young Al Capone on Boardwalk Empire), Eddie Marsan as a crooked cop and a few other common ‘faces in the crowd’. Anne Friel shows up in a few brief scenes as Farrell’s loyal but quirky sister who the film tries to play a trick on us with, making their relationship borderline flirtatious.
All in all, London Boulevard is a thoughtful, mature gangster film, but still rather indistinguishable from the rest of the pack, lacking the thematic punch or stylistic gravitas that is required for staying power in the hearts and minds of critics or fans.