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Contemporary London Noir in London Boulevard (2010)

November 11, 2011

London Boulevard, directed by William Monahan, the screenwriter of Martin Scorcese’s recent The Departed, is a contemporary nod to both the American film noir tradition and, more obviously, the British urban gangster/revenge film of the type made famous most recently by Guy Ritchie, as well as older films like Mona Lisa. Crucially the film references  British gangster classics like Get Carter, 1971 (affectionately revived in Caine’s recent Harry Brown, 2009). The film’s dual, US/UK identity is perhaps accounted for by the American Monahan’s involvement as director. Some reviews (almost all have been very negative) have commented on the cliched nature of the working-class gangster aspects of the film, problems that would make sense when taking into account the fact that they are screen-written by an ‘outsider’ to both London and its most common film genre. The same reviews also acknowledge that these violent sections are the most interesting in the film, marred overall by a tame romance between Farrell and Knightley and too many plot-strands (one of them a commentary on the paparrazzi and celebrity).

I must say I disagree with almost everyone on Rottentomatoes (the film scored a rotten 32% with the critics and a similar poor 34% with audience reviewers). I found the film subtle, emotionally engaging and the outcome almost unbearably predictable. Not due to poor filmmaking, but in the ‘inevitable outcome’ sense. *SPOILER* While Farrell’s ex-con gangster Mitchel is clearly going to get revenge, he is also certainly doomed because of the life he has chosen (you live by the gun etc). Indeed, the ending plays out in a very similar fashion to Get Carter (see below). All in all the film’s familiarity means that it renews but never reinvents or refreshes the genre. This is perhaps its greatest problem: it is a too-respectful nod to the conventions of the London gangster film and needs more of an edge of its own to remain memorable in an already oversubscribed canon.

The performances are uniformly good, especially Ben Chaplin as a greasy lowlife coward and Anna Friel as Mitchel’s sex and money-obsessed, uncontrollable, mentally-ill and drunk sister. Ray Winstone as the psychopathic crimeboss is perhaps too well-cast (as are many of the gangster roles, its like a who’s who of actors who can and have played London gangster-types) and Collin Farrell does a decent, heroic job. He is a little monosyllabic and stoic and his performance is nothing like his excellent turn in one of my favourite films In Bruges, mainly because while he convinces as a thug, he is less believable as a romantic lead (he doesn’t really look like a nice man). Keira Knightley, who I like, is all angular vulnerability with a hint of neurosis i.e. her usual performance a la Atonement and Never Let Me Go (I do look forward to her in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method and hope she can pull off the crazy). Speaking of crazy, David Thewlis is memorable as an eccentric and homicidal druggie actor/minder and provides some of the film’s few moments of humour, albeit black.

An effective aspect of the film is its portrait of two contemporray Londons: criminal/poor and wealthy/fashionable and the intersections between the two. These intersections are often visually uncomfortable (a bloodied and haired hammer head, a suited gangster in a plush townhouse wielding a huge knife) and extremely effective. It is these visual touches that make the film resonate more than it would without them.

Other critics have commented negatively on the romance but I feel it works, kinda (they are unlikely to stay together, having nothing in common; it’s more about what each of them needs from the other). Basically plot-wise Mitchel has to have something other than gang life to return to.

I felt the film offered something a little different: a welcome mix of tones, classes and Londons. But it could have done with more of Ritchie’s, or its own, black comedy. As a whole the leaves a dispirited, listless taste in the mouth despite its finer aspects (hardly unusual in the genre). Still, its well worth seeing and, on the whole, has been severely underrated.

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