There’s a familiar, some would say endless, argument about the British film industry: that the films it produces are essentially afraid of tackling the present and pressing contemporary issues. British directors, or at least the companies that finance their films, have rarely tried to engage with the shock of the now, and instead remain happy to retreat into a comfortable, mindless and nostalgic past that probably never existed in the first place. The recent riots that rocked the capital, for instance, or the fall-out from the News International hacking scandal are subjects less likely to be turned into a feature film than, say, something like “Notting Hill 2,” or any another mythological and monocultural representation of London or -- God forbid -- one of the country's other major cities. Occasionally someone comes along with a stick and pokes the ruling classes in the eye (think “The Shooting Party” or “Gosford Park”) but screenplays penned by Julian Fellowes can hardly be considered the stuff of breath-taking dynamism. When the Brits aren’t churning out benign pictures about a benign royal dynasty (hello, “The Queen” and “The King’s Speech”) or enlisting scads of former theatre directors (Richard Eyre, Stephen Daldry, Nicolas Hytner, Sam Mendes) to blandly recreate their deferential attitude towards bland material, they make shockingly poor gangster pictures that would make even a hack like Guy Ritchie blush.
The nearest attempts to legitimately deal with an urban criminal "underclass" in recent years have been “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises”. Both films, enjoyable in and of themselves, arguably fudge the wider socio-economic and cultural issues their plots raise by sidling into familiar thriller territory, the net result being something that feels empty-headed and inauthentic. It’s little surprise, then, that the most talented of their native directors – like that bastard Alfred Hitchcock - bog off to America and spend the rest of their career over there. Who can blame them?
Misty-eyed British cinephiles hoping that Sallie Aprahamian’s feature film debut “Broken Lines” (shot in 2008, but being dumped now) might constitute some form of quiet salvation should begin lowering their expectations. True enough, it’s set in present-day London, and doesn’t feature Keira Knightley and Judi Dench wandering about in the background in lace bonnets. But it also squanders some potentially great material (particularly Jewish identity in Britain, a subject rarely touched upon on-screen) in favour of a trite, repetitious melodrama that’s hellishly tedious and appears to confuse characters screaming their feelings at each other (sample dialogue: “Fuck your father! Fuck your house! And FUCK YOU!”) with some form of emotional catharsis. And if capturing the essence of contemporary London was within the film’s remit, then it bellyflops more loudly than John Candy cannonballing a swimming pool at the shallow end.
Given that unknown lead actors Dan Fredenburgh and Doraly Rosa also share co-writing credits, it’s probably a fair assessment to conclude that the whole thing has been workshopped within an inch of its life. Angrily burying his father on a miserable afternoon, Jake Levy (Fredenburgh) bumps into a surly waitress named Becca or B (Rosa) who’s stuck bussing tables in a greasy spoon café down the road from Jake's family tailoring business. In a matter of minutes they’ve struck up a casual, vaguely flirtatious bond and Jake – although engaged to be married to a frigid bourgeois type -- returns to convince B to play nookie, tell her all about his generic Daddy issues in few unconvincing tell-don't-show scenes, and lead her round the top floor of the old man's suit shop he’s just inherited. At this point they embark on a supposedly tempestuous affair that’s about as hot and alluring as a bowl of tapioca pudding.
But there are complications. Namely, Jake and B’s respective spouses behave like spoilt children. As Jake’s fiancé Zoe, the usually vivacious Olivia Williams is wasted in a role that can generously be described as a volatile shrewish bitch, and who’s gifted with scripted scenarios that dictates her emotional range slide from eyelid-fluttering dolt and to erupting Mount Etna complete with vein-throbbing forehead in a matter of seconds. Similarly Paul Bettany’s part as B’s live-in boyfriend Chester amounts to scarcely more than a glorified blustering cameo, even though the film's being sold under his name. A crippled ex-boxer who can’t face being intimate with his wife and falling behind on his physiotherapy, Bettany’s scenes are undoubtedly the film’s strongest and most compelling, filled with an anguish and desperation you’d expect from the veteran actor. Unfortunately, though, after about eight almost-identical successive skits featuring the actor falling down the stairs and shouting a lot, his character tends to wear a bit. At one point Bettany literally bangs his forehead against a doorframe in frustration until blood starts seeping from his skull. It’s an apt metaphor for the film itself.
In one particularly grievous scene, Harriet Walter shows up as Jake’s estranged mother and wails through a hackneyed monologue about her dead ex-husband whilst attempting a dodgy Naarf Lahndan accent. Any soap opera aficionado will no doubt recognize the tin-eared sub-“EastEnders” dialogue. Meanwhile old hand Rita Tushingham – most fondly remembered for “A Taste of Honey” – flits in and out of the narrative as B’s suffer-no-fools café co-worker. Androids could have programmed more a nuanced set of characters.
The film “Broken Lines” perhaps most closely resembles is David Morrissey’s “Don’t Worry About Me,” if not in its subject matter then its misguided ambition. There was a film similarly improvised by two actors (it’s a little-seen effort that failed to recreate “Before Sunrise” and “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” with a Liverpuddlian backdrop) but which forgot to graft a tenable plot onto the proceedings, and instead degenerated into a series of confusing, disconnected vignettes. Aprahamian’s direction is ailed in identical ways. When it’s not indulging in crashing, laughable symbolism (Jake throws a snow globe across the room and groans, “Been in a suit my whole fuckin’ life”) there’s some rushed business with a guitar suddenly becoming a major plot point, and Jake’s character, half discontented business and half florid monomaniac, takes to stalking B through his shop window like a regular L.B Jeffries, albeit with some stock unresolved relationship issues.
Maybe it’s too much to ask for a new British film to be demonstrably set in the present-day, given that the whole industry seems to regard the social and political upheavals of the 1990s and 2000s as an anathema to good business. In the case of the D.O.A, emotionally sterile “Broken Lines,” though, it’d be a start to at least bother having characters that behave in ways that are recognizably human. [D]
"Broken Lines" opens in the U.K. on September 30th.