×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘London Fields’

Martin Amis' novel proves even more unadaptable than expected in this misbegotten mess starring Amber Heard and Billy Bob Thornton.

With:
Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard, Theo James, Jim Sturgess, Cara Delevingne, Jaimie Alexander, Jason Isaacs, Johnny Depp, Lily Cole, Craig Garner.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1273221/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'London Fields'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 15, 2015. Running time: 118 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Hero Entertainment presentation of a Muse production in association with IM Global, Mirada Studios, MindSky Entertainment, Periscope Entertainment, Curiously Bright Entertainment, Demarest Films, Lip Sync and Vedette Finance. Produced by Jordan Gertner, Chris Hanley, Geyer Kosinski. Executive producers, Lilly Bright, Vikram Chatwal, Norman Merry, Reno Antoniades, Laurie Borg, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones.

Crew: Directed by Mathew Cullen. Screenplay, Roberta Hanley, Martin Amis, from the novel by Amis. Camera (color), Guillermo Navarro; editors, Joe Plenys, Fred Fouquet, Mathew Cullen; music, Toydrum, Benson Taylor; production designer, Jeremy Reed; costume designer, Susie Coulthard; art director, Patrick Herzberg; sound, Jovan Ajder; casting, Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu.

With: Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard, Theo James, Jim Sturgess, Cara Delevingne, Jaimie Alexander, Jason Isaacs, Johnny Depp, Lily Cole, Craig Garner.

More Film

  • Bruce Springsteen arrives for the New

    Bruce Springsteen Returns to NJ Hometown for Surprise 'Western Stars' Introduction

    Bruce Springsteen returned to his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey to offer a surprise introduction to the first public multiplex viewing of his concert/documentary film, “Western Stars.” Dressed simply in a brown jacket, Springsteen took a moment to say a few words at the AMC Freehold 14 movie theater on Saturday night. “We knew we [...]

  • Backstage in Puglia del film SPACCAPIETRE:

    'Gomorrah' Star Salvatore Esposito Set For De Serio Twins' 'The Stonebreaker'

    Salvatore Esposito, the Italian star who plays young mob boss Genny Savastano in Italy’s hit TV series “Gomorrah,” will soon be hitting the big screen toplining upcoming drama “The Stonebreaker” by twin directorial duo Gianluca and Massimiliano De Serio, who are known internationally for “Seven Acts of Mercy.” The De Serio twins are now in post on “Stonebreaker” [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Tops 'Joker,' 'Zombieland'

    “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” is on track to give Disney another first place finish after scoring $12.5 million in Friday’s domestic ticket sales. If estimates hold, the Angelina Jolie-led film should finish the weekend with about $38 million — well below earlier forecasts but enough to top holdover “Joker” and fellow newcomer “Zombieland: Double Tap.” [...]

  • Maelle Arnaud

    Lumière Chief Programmer Maelle Arnaud: 'Film History Doesn't Have Parity'

    LYON, France   — As the Lumière Institute’s head programmer since 2001, Maelle Arnaud helped launched the Lumière Festival in 2009 and has watched it grow in international esteem over the decade that followed. This year, the festival ran 190 films across 424 screenings in theaters all over town. The festival will come to a [...]

  • Girl with Green Eyes

    Talking Pictures TV: Bringing the Past Back to Life in the U.K.

    LYON, France – Since its launch in 2015, Talking Pictures TV has become the fastest-growing independent channel in the U.K. with a growing library of British film and TV titles that span five decades, according to founder Noel Cronin. Noel Cronin attended the Lumière Festival’s International Classic Film Market (MIFC) in Lyon, France, where he [...]

  • Wings of Desire

    German Heritage Sector Applauds Increased Digitization, Preservation Funding

    LYON, France  — Germany’s film heritage sector is celebrating a new federal and state-funded initiative launching in January that will provide €10 million ($11.15 million) a year towards the digitization and preservation of feature films. Rainer Rother, the artistic director of the Deutsche Kinemathek, outlined the plan at a panel discussion at the Lumière Festival’s [...]

  • 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    Film Review: 'QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight'

    In one of the intermittent revealing moments in “QT8: Quentin Tarantino, The First Eight,” a documentary about the films of Quentin Tarantino that’s like a familiar but tasty sundae for Quentin fans, we see Tarantino on the set of “Pulp Fiction,” shooting the iconic dance contest at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. As John Travolta and Uma [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content