LONDON BOULEVARD Review
For his directorial debut, the Oscar-winning writer of THE DEPARTED, William Monahan opts for another gangster tale, this time adapting Ken Bruen's cockney gangster novel LONDON BOULEVARD. The story centres around Mitchell (Colin Farrell), a newly released convict looking to go straight. He lands himself the job as bodyguard to Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a reclusive actress perpetually hounded by the paparazzi. Mitchell's friends recognize his strength and reputation on the streets and are keen to draw him into their firm. As Mitchell desperately tries to distance himself from his previous life and spies a glimmer of hope in a burgeoning romance with Charlotte, he unwittingly attracts the attention of Gant (Ray Winstone), an East End kingpin who won't take no for an answer.
If this sounds a little like NOTTING HILL meets CARLITO'S WAY, have no fear, as LONDON BOULEVARD takes its criminal trappings far more seriously than its romantic aspirations. Monahan makes the leap across the pond with remarkable ease and shows he has a keen understanding of the British capital's crime scene - or has at least done more than simply swot up on a few Guy Ritchie flicks as preparation. While the main narrative arc of the reformed con looking to go straight may be all too familiar to some, Monahan ensures his world of bent coppers and shady geezers introduces a menagerie of great characters and numerous moments of palpable tension.
Colin Farrell does a superb job, not only as the smooth, collected pretty boy off to make a better life for himself, but more impressively as a ticking time bomb of unexplored violence and ruthlessness. Monahan gives Farrell plenty of superb dialogue, showing Mitchell up to be a man who has improved himself on the inside and cultivated his intellect, but with a dark side lingering just beneath the surface that threatens to engulf him if pushed too far. The all-too-rarely seen Ben Chaplin is excellent as Mitchell's good for nothing buddy, Billy, and is a far cry from the clean-cut pretty boy he presented early on in his career.
Ray Winstone is a no-brainer as Gant, the face of the criminal "establishment", and while at first the role may seem like nothing new for an actor who can do "threatening cockney" in his sleep, he still manages to genuinely intimidate with consummate ease. Comic relief appears in the welcome form of David Thewlis, as Charlotte's fellow actor housemate, guardian, confidante or whatever. Few actors can pull off the effete thespian as well as Thewlis, who enjoys a few delightfully dark moments of humour - including a subtle nod to Hong Kong flick INFERNAL AFFAIRS. The supporting cast is rounded out by such unique talents as Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan and Anna Friel - rather wonderful as Mitchell's "terrible" sister, and I'd have gladly spent more time with any of these minor but memorable characters.
Charlotte will instantly have audiences recalling Keira Knightley's own retreat into seclusion back in 2006 over claims she was exhausted and saturated by her work. While Knightley has emerged from her hiatus to deliver a remarkable run of form that has included some of her best work yet, one can't help but equate her real personality to something close to Charlotte's fragile, frightened and persecuted celebrity. As good as her performance is, Knightley's character represents the film's weakest element, serving as little more than an elusive Holy Grail for Mitchell as he attempts to escape his life of crime. Charlotte at one point decries leading roles for Hollywood actresses as mere foils to get the hero talking about his feelings, dreams or childhood. While Monahan's screenplay just barely avoids doing exactly that, as Mitchell never truly opens up to anyone, the potential for romance between the two is never believable, even as a desperate cry for help from either party, and feels at odds with the ever-present threat of violence from Gant and his crew.
While it plays out exactly the way any crime flick-savvy viewer will expect it to, LONDON BOULEVARD is nevertheless an assured and hugely enjoyable piece of work. Monahan here proves himself to be a bona fide gangster brand of his own making, luring in the finest talent in the industry with his well-drawn characters spouting similarly spicy dialogue, and directing them with confidence and clarity. Suffice to say, I'm not looking to escape from William Monahan's criminal underworld anytime soon.