How beastly Britain is being to Anthony Minghella. Almost single-handedly this man puts his country back on the Oscars map with The English Patient, following it with the terrific The Talented Mr Ripley. Then when the usual Limey moan goes up of “Why can’t an Englishman make films in England?”, he makes a film in England and critics slaughter it.
All right, Breaking and Entering is not Citizen Kane. It is not even Mr Wonderful, Minghella’s canny, kindred American debut about townie blues. The new film packs so many contemp-orary themes of UK city life into its suitcase – racism, crime, delinquent youth, urban renewal – that the suitcase keeps falling open and littering the pavement. Jude Law’s London architect, shuttling romantically between a Swedish partner (Robin Wright Penn) and the Bosnian mum (Juliette Binoche) of the lad who has been weekly ripping off his new office, is blurrily characterised at times. So would anyone be whose head is constantly metronoming, Wimbledon-like, between commitments.
Yet Minghella has a good idea at this film’s heart and several good ones coming out of its brain. As omelettes are made by breaking eggs, new amities and insights can be catalysed, he suggests, by social disruption: here an outbreak of serial burglary that propels Law into a netherworld that has been for him a neverworld. He chases the crime boy, meets the mum and endangers a congealing home life by bedding a case-study immigrant who becomes, before his and our eyes, a human being – especially as played by Binoche, all raw-nerved response, quickness of beauty, and the darting, defensive eyes of the diselemented.
There is too much piling of modish crisis. Penn and Binoche each have a problem child. Law’s architecture office stands too transparently for spin-era reformism, a skylighted cathedral of “greening” making the Blairite sign of the cross over King’s Cross. And whenever Minghella fears punters may miss a point, he italicises it. “I was looking for love,” says Law late on. Yes; we got that. And “Maybe that’s why I like metaphors,” he utters when confessing to a mendacity habit. This kind of dialogue is like the waiter who explains the dish while you are starting to eat it.
But there is ambient life too in Breaking and Entering. Minor characters introduce themselves with witty economy, from Martin Freeman’s bemused architect partner to Ray Winstone’s cameo as a police inspector wearied by overqualification for the job. (Listen to the Pinteresque comical weight he gives the line “It’s an area in flux”). Aided by Benoit Delhomme’s photography, Minghella also makes London a maze of concrete, glass and tarmac – a conundrum in search of a character – of which Antonioni would be proud.
Fish monsters come no better, and certainly no larger, than the title “thing” in South Korea’s The Host. First seen suspended from a bridge’s underside by its tail, it is soon aerially looping like Spider-Man, charging at a high-speed lollop along banks filled with screaming extras, or diving into Seoul’s Han river to escort live human prey to its sewer-complex home. Its face is two eyes atop a Chinese-box set of pulpy mouths, its feet are fleshy claws, its tail is as long as Piccadilly.
Bong Joon-Ho’s film, the most popular ever in its native country, is glorious nonsense. Critics trying to be solemn on a Monday afternoon were regularly wrong-footed. Whenever we thought the central family of five, whose foodshop-running patriarch declares war when the monster kidnaps his niece, was directing the mayhem one way, chasing the mega-fish to doom by shotgun or bow-and-arrow, the creature rewrote the rules of engagement. It is resourceful, unguessable, impertinent. I loved the scene where the trapped girl tries to escape to daylight up its sleeping back, only for the fish to out-coil a snoozy tail and put her, politely and delicately, back.
The filmmaker Bong reaches for extra reverb with a plot about the US-Korean military. Conducting horrible experiments, they, it is implied, may be the true monster. They even created the title mutant, we see in scene one, by having 100-odd pints of formaldehyde emptied into the river on a nutty general’s orders (apparently just because the bottles were dusty). For progressive South Koreans, America and their own country are still handier demons than the monster to their north; although as a Kim-seeking secret weapon, to be sent up river or up canal-system to prang the world’s newest nuclear lunatic, this Host might well be worth developing.
The Prestige is a battle of magicians set in old-world London. I think I’d rather spend a night in Madame Tussauds being scared by an inanimate Jack the Ripper, or just asphyxiated by mothballs, than sit through this fustian stuff again. The acoustic horrors are the worst. Sir Michael Caine does his Stella Street accent; Australia’s Hugh Jackman does American; America’s Scarlett Johansson does English (sort of); and Britain’s Christian Bale does Jamie Oliver cockney. It is a sonic bear garden. And did we mention – or were we too merciful – David Bowie doing mittel-European?
The British writer-director Christopher Nolan seemed, before Batman Begins and this, to have a promising auteur career. See Memento. But he allows barnstorming here to pass for acting and melodrama for drama. The plot calls on us to believe that a contest between two naff stage vanishing acts – Jackman’s and Bale’s – would have theatre-going London nailed to its seats year after year.
When we think what cinema has done with illusionism – The Phantom of the Opera (Chaney not Webber), Bergman’s The Magician, the standout sequences in the Harry Potter series – it is hard to credit that Nolan, adapting a novel by Christopher Priest, creates no movie magic of his own. I make one exception. I liked the cat. In an
invisibility-inducing experiment at Fortress Bowie, the handsome black moggy cowers fetchingly amid an aurora borealis of electrical lightning. The animal, on this showing, should go straight to playing the most challenging feline role of all: Schrödinger’s cat. And Nolan could return to his cerebral roots by writing and directing the movie: The Cat and the Quantum Leap.
This is yet another week in which British or British-crafted films outnumber those from other nations. What is happening? Has a new world order arrived?
Starter for Ten (Tom Vaughan) is a medium-merry tale of 1980s university life featuring a boy (James McAvoy), two girls (Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall) and a climactic skit on TV’s University Challenge. Watch for Mark Gatiss’s brilliant Bamber Gascoigne impersonation. Scenes of a Sexual Nature (Ed Blum) is an omnibus drama about seekers after love on London’s Hampstead Heath, neatly scripted and thriftily made (Ewan McGregor leading the scale-paid stars). Puritan (Hadi Hajaig) is a satanic tale of clairvoyance, lit like a department store Hell’s Grotto but with passing frights and ingenuities.
Next week, more Anglomania and Anglo-moviedom, led by Casino Royale. For a nation that once had to grin and bear François Truffaut’s famous insult – “British cinema is a contradiction in terms” – these are giddy times.