In the opening pages of Martin Amis’ 1989 mind-trip murder mystery “London Fields,” the author notes that the story that follows will not be a who-done-it, but rather a why-do-it. Finally arriving on the screen after years of aborted attempts, Mathew Cullen’s adaptation proves that shepherding the book to the cinema was always less a case of how-do-it than why-try-it. Substituting for Amis’ post-punk Nabokovian prose a blitz of heavily stylized visuals straight out of some post-apocalyptic Chanel commercial, this spiraling story of sex, murder, darts, premillennial dread and authorial anxiety becomes a veritable hash of garish, disassociated tableaux. Despite lush photography and a cast attractive enough to lure curious distributors, this misbegotten mess risks suffering the same fate at the box office that befalls its heroine on her dead-end street, but Cullen genuinely deserves credit for making it this far — sometimes you have to try to adapt a seemingly unadaptable book just to learn how truly unadaptable it is.
Amis’ novel defies easy characterization, and had previously attracted interest from directors as varied as David Cronenberg and Michael Winterbottom. Taking place on the brink of a worldwide political-environmental cataclysm that is left purposefully vague, it features an American author named Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton), dying of a likewise vague terminal illness, who arrives in London to write his last novel. Staying at the home of the far more successful British author Mark Aspery (Jason Isaacs), he happens upon a ludicrously sexual femme fatale living in the flat above: Nicola Six (Amber Heard), known for narrative purposes as “the murderee.”
A lifelong clairvoyant, Nicola has always been aware that she will be murdered, and has no desire to try to alter this fate. She knows the date (Guy Fawkes Day, her 30th birthday), the location (a particular cul-de-sac) and the weapon (an iron car tool). The only thing she doesn’t know is the identity of the murderer, but when she arrives in the rundown Black Cross pub a few weeks before her expiration date, she senses she’s found him.
Along with Samson, the pub is inhabited by Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), a literally mouth-breathing proletarian lout who dreams of becoming a darts champion when he isn’t pulling petty scams or beating up his wife (Cara Delevingne); and Guy Clinch (Theo James), a naive, tight-sphinctered, upper-class pretty boy trying to escape his frigid American spouse (Jaimie Alexander) and monstrous young son (Craig Garner). Both men are drawn instantly into Nicola’s orbit, and the rest of the film will follow her as she ruthlessly teases and manipulates these two easy marks, sure that she can push one of them into doing the deed.
Blackmailed by Samson, Nicola agrees to allow him to be a witness to her final days in order to use them as material for his own novel, and the increasingly ill writer tags along with the three as a passive yet occasionally involved observer. This is where Cullen’s “London Fields” confronts its most insurmountable problem.
Throughout the film, as in the novel, it’s never clear whether these characters are all creations of Samson’s imagination; real people he actually physically interacts with; functionaries of some higher intelligence pulling the strings sight unseen; or a little of all three. This works in the book precisely because it is a book: the reader is continually forced to question not just what will happen with the plot and whether the narrator is reliable, but more fundamentally how to consider the bound pages he or she is holding. What, in the end, is “London Fields” a document of? Cullen never hatches a filmic correlative to that Gordian metafictional structure, endeavoring to stay faithful to a book that is rarely ever faithful to itself.
Nicola preys on Keith’s lust and vanity, tottering around in lingerie and urging him to reach the televised London dart championships, where he will face his rival and sadistic creditor, Chick Purchase (Johnny Depp, essentially reprising his role from “Alice in Wonderland”). Guy’s weakness, on the other hand, is his naive goodness, and for him Nicola plays the improbable role of virginal altruist, extorting tons of his cash under the pretense of rescuing a Burmese refugee she knew as a child — giving her a name the guileless Guy transcribes as Eno Lah Gai — and her little boy. For newcomers, just figuring out what is going on in several individual scenes will be a challenge, as Cullen continually blurs every line of chronology and continuity, chopping up straightforward sequences into fractured reveries.
Alongside Roberta Hanley, Amis is credited as a co-scripter — the film takes quite substantial dialogue and voiceover straight from the book — but it misses one of the novel’s key qualities: pitch-black yet gleeful humor. With his sociological asides and curlicues of wild satire, Amis the novelist managed to turn these three cartoons (and Guy, Keith and Nicola are all clearly that) into bathetically charged archetypes heedlessly orchestrating their own destructions. Cullen’s film features constant voiceover narration from Thornton, and returns to him again and again as he sits typing on his laptop, splicing in bizarre montages of warfare, nuclear explosions, cellular division and cosmological entropy as he writes. This allows precious little room for the inspired bits of class-war slapstick that made the novel a strange British cultural landmark, leaving us with a rather plain core story, however confusingly told.
Making his feature film debut, Cullen betrays his music-video background throughout, working with expert cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and production designer Jeremy Reed to create stunning, dreamlike images that often serve no purpose other than dazzlement and distraction. It’s difficult to say what to make of any of the performances: Heard is given to flat affectlessness, while Sturgess pushes his working-class caricature so far into the red that it’s hard to make him out. And yet it’s possible they’re both doing exactly what they were instructed to do. (As for James, he pretty much nails the description that the book itself offers for an actor to play Guy — “the ones that do Evelyn Waugh heroes: meek, puzzled, pointlessly handsome.”) Amis himself appears in a one-scene cameo as a darts celebrity, but had the film really wanted to evoke the sensibility of the author, it would have simply cast him as Martin Amis.