“London Boulevard” is like a fancy, retro-styled pocket watch that someone accidentally broke and tried to reassemble with only a vague idea of clockwork. The result is a superficially handsome crime thriller that doesn’t tick, although it’s got a pretty, jeweled face (stars Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley, plus multiple Brit vets) and some clever scripting by William Monahan (scribe of “The Departed”), making his directorial debut here. Opening first in the U.K., “Boulevard” may have a rocky rod ahead of it before its Stateside release in 2011 from new distrib FilmDistrict.
With an opening credits montage in which protag Mitchel (Colin Farrell) is released from London’s Pentonville prison, helmer Monahan immediately announces his retro intentions by temporarily letterboxing the frame (the remainder of the pic is in 16:9) to create a 1960s vibe, while the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” twangs out over the soundtrack. Indeed, non-source music choices throughout, which include garage-rock rarities and a backward-glancing original score by Sergio Pizzorno, strain to evoke a swingin’ London atmosphere that’s mirrored in the references to vintage Brit pics, especially “Performance” (1970) and “Get Carter” (1971).
But as the title suggests, the biggest cinematic touchstone here is “Sunset Blvd.,” given that soon after his release, Mitchel lands a job as a handyman for reclusive, mega-famous movie star Charlotte (Keira Knightley). Whereas Ken Bruen’s source novel went so far as to make the movie star a sexagenarian whom Mitchel beds, the film has rather cowardly backed off the May-December romance (given Farrell’s and Knightley’s respective ages, it’s more like May-March).
Having suffered some kind of mental breakdown, Charlotte is holed up in her Holland Park mansion with only her friend/assistant/hanger-on Jordan (David Thewlis, amusingly louche) for company, until Mitchel arrives on the scene to help fend off the ever-present hoard of paparazzi outside the gates. The “Performance” echoes reside in the contrast here between her rich bohemian lifestyle and Mitchel’s underworld background.
But that’s only one strand of the crowded script. Mitchel actually spends a lot more screen time hanging out with his onetime partner-in-crime Billy (Ben Chaplin), who works for loan shark Gant (Ray Winstone). Mitchel lends Billy the requisite muscle when collecting payments but keeps protesting that he wants to go straight, and tries to fend off Gant’s efforts to bring him back into the gangster fold. In yet further subplots, Mitchel is also out for revenge against the thugs (Jamie Blackley and Gregory Foreman) who killed his homeless friend Joe (Alan Williams), and also worries about his bipolar floozy of a sister, Briony (Anna Friel), a character clearly doomed from the start.
Dody Dorn and Robb Sullivan’s editing simply can’t cope with this many strands, and “London Boulevard” grows increasingly choppy as it switches back and forth, making it difficult to work out who’s where, how much time has passed or just what’s going on. Likewise, the mash-up of styles — noirish one moment, coyly romantic the next, and then verging on broad comedy via slightly manic perfs — never coalesces. One senses that Monahan wants to achieve something sui generis, but his helming just isn’t up to the same level of proficiency as some of the big-name directors he’s worked with as a screenwriter, such as Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott.
Still, the pic is never dull, and the black-humored dialogue is frequently delicious (explaining that Charlotte gave up acting because she was only offered victim roles, Jordan remarks that, “If it weren’t for Monica Bellucci, she’d be the most raped woman in European cinema”).
Thesps show real relish for their material, even if the characters aren’t sufficiently developed to convince that they’re really as smart as they sound. Farrell and Knightley rep particularly weak links in this regard; he’s mostly taciturn and vacuous, while she wheels out a range of tics that don’t add up. At least Chaplin and Friel, both of whom looked like leading-role material years ago but never quite made it, submit solid, engaging perfs.
Stylish but never stylized lensing by Chris Menges helps to paper over the stylistic cracks, while the rest of the tech package is uniformly pro. Subtle use of London locations will make geographical sense to domestic auds and thankfully doesn’t go overboard with trite shots of the London Eye or Big Ben.