By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 13, 2010 at 4:00AM
It's quite rare for a screenwriter to become something of a brand name, particularly with fewer than half a dozen produced credits, and, while William Monahan may not mean a huge amount to the general public, his is a name that tends to make film geeks prick up their ears. In the decade since he worked on the aborted project "Tripoli" with Ridley Scott, Monahan's become one of the most in-demand writers around. Scott may have botched his excellent crusades script "Kingdom of Heaven" by casting Orlando Bloom in the lead, but the writer can't have minded too much, as only a year later he was picking up an Academy Award for his work on Martin Scorsese's "The Departed."
It's no surprise then that Monahan's directorial debut "London Boulevard," an adaption of a crime novel by prolific Irish writer Ken Bruen (whose book "Blitz" hits screens next year with Jason Statham in the lead), attracted a top-notch cast. Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis, Eddie Marsan, Anna Friel, Stephen Graham and half-a-dozen other acclaimed British actors all signed on, and the prospect of Monahan bringing the same kind of fresh approach and brilliant dialogue to the tired London gangster movie that he took to "The Departed" was an enticing one.
But then the vultures began to circle. The film bypassed the festival route completely, remained without a US release date, while in the UK it was stuck on the release schedule at the last minute and barely screened for critics, while those who did see it were embargoed until the day of release. Was it a disaster waiting to happen? Or was it the case of a distributor who didn't know how to handle a smart, interesting film? Sadly, it's much, much closer to the former.
Mitchell (Farrell), a career criminal, has just got out of prison, having served several years for GBH, and he's determined not to go back. He's picked up by his no-good mate Billy (Ben Chaplin), who's working as a loan shark for local bigwig Gant (Winstone) and wants Mitchell to join him, but he shuns him, and instead manages to fall into a job offer to be handyman for a reclusive movie star, Charlotte (Knightley), who's shut away in her Holland Park home with only her aristocratic, sozzled pal Jordan (David Thewlis). Mitchell finds himself falling for Charlotte, but Gant, along with crooked cop Bailey (Eddie Marsan) and Briony, his troubled sister (Anna Friel), won't let him escape his old life so easily.
Here's the thing -- we put the film on our most anticipated list for 2010, and it wasn't without reason; we'd read Monahan's script, and liked it a great deal. But when we walked out of the completed film, we became concerned -- had we lost our minds way back in late 2009? Had we somehow mistaken the incoherent mess that we'd just seen for the well-told, melancholy crime tale that we thought we'd read on the page?
A flip through the script again reveals that our instincts weren't off -- Monahan's work is fairly strong on the page -- not perfect, by any means, but we hadn't gone totally off our rocker in praising it. What's left on screen is an abject lesson in breaking what didn't needed fixing in the first place, a narrative that throws multiple strands at the audience without ever settling down and getting one right, and it's a deeply unfulfilling film as a result.
We don't know enough about Mitchell's past to invest in his desire to escape a life of crime, or to fear the violence inside him, and we don't get enough time with him and Charlotte together to care about their relationship, something not aided by the fact that Knightley gets less screen time than most of the other characters, and that she and Farrell share no chemistry whatsoever.
Characters come and go seemingly at random -- Marsan gets two and a half scenes-worth of a colorful cameo which doesn't serve the film at all, the subplot with Friel has been trimmed to the verge of pointlessness, and there's a paparazzo with a gun ("Down Terrace" star Tony Way) who never pays off. And the ending? The ending comes from nowhere, which you suspect may be part of the point, but it doesn't make it any more satisfying dramatically.
There's plenty of incident here, but it's never paced properly, and never feels like the inevitable spiral that you suspect it should -- we were stunned to see veteran editor Dody Dorn ("Memento") credited, alongside Robb Sullivan, because we can't remember a film of late that feels quite as badly cut as this.
And it's a shame, because Monahan appears to have some visual chops. He doesn't fall into the trap of showing off, like so many writers-turned-directors, but the film looks terrific, for the most part, thanks to some stunning work by regular Ken Loach collaborator Chris Menges. Together with Kasabian member Sergio Pizzorno's decent, if unexceptional Kinks-inflected score, they manage to tip their hat to the swinging-sixties vibe that Monahan was clearly after with a degree of success; the likes of "Performance" and "Blow Up" are clearly major influences here.
But the principle problem, surprisingly, considering the high calibre of talent involved, is with casting. It's unclear whether Monahan struggles to work with actors, or whether the majority of those on board were just monumentally miscast, but almost everyone involved gives their worst performances in some time. Farrell struggles with the accent, playing Mitchell like a weak imitation of idiotic DTV gangster movie stalwart Danny Dyer, while Knightley barely registers, although it's not entirely her fault - -she's at least thirty years too young for the part, really.
Winstone meanwhile, has played this kind of role countless times, and barely seems to be awake -- the performance is notable only for the vague feeling that the actor is trying to impersonate Sir Alan Sugar, the Donald Trump figure in the UK version of "The Apprentice." Only Friel and Thewlis are engaging, if completely over the top -- the former playing Briony like a demented version of Holly Golightly, the latter a posh actor with an unexpected talent for murder, who gets all the best lines ("After Monica Belucci, she's the most raped woman in European cinema").
Despite all its promise, the film comes across closer to one of the spate of post-"Lock Stock" British gangster movies of the early noughties than to Roeg and Cammell, feeling tired and nonsensical. It smacks of post-production conflict to the degree that we wouldn't write off Monahan as a helmer -- there's enough promise in what's on screen that you feel he'll improve in time. And a recut between now and its unnamed release in the States, via Film District, next year could certainly improve matters a little. But for the most part, "London Boulevard" is a road you don't really want to find yourself going down. [D+]