The confusing title is the first of London Boulevard‘s many problems and emblematic of all of them. It sounds good, with some retro appeal and apparently alluding to Billy Wilder’s classic Sunset Boulevard, but once first impressions are out of the way all that’s left is confusion. There are plenty of appealing elements to William Monahan’s directorial debut, but considering his credentials as screenwriter for Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (reportedly an outstanding film until being subject to the dreaded studio re-cut) and Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, for which he won an Oscar, the script is bloated and suffers from a deep lack of focus.
The Sunset Boulevard allusion in the title (which otherwise makes no sense, as there’s no such place in reality) appears deliberate, echoed in the plot strand that sees former gangster Mitchell, recently released from Pentonville prison and determined to go straight, sign up as a minder for reclusive movie star Charlotte. A London-based remake of Wilder’s film might have been interesting, especially when filtered through the British crime film tradition and the modern culture of celebrity obsession, yet its star credentials are denied by a gallimaufry of supporting stories desperate for top billing.
In a sense, the core problem with London Boulevard is that it’s a film comprised entirely of sub-plots built around the thoroughly overdone conceit of the ex-con struggling to go straight. Mitchell’s relationship with Charlotte suggests that it’ll grow into the heart of the film, yet then disappears for half-an-hour while we see Mitchell trying to help his sister accept some responsibility for her life, or teaming up with one of his criminal friends to make some quick cash while refuting the advances of crime boss Gant to join his organisation. By the time we get back to Charlotte, the sole rewards are a trip to a country manor and a thoroughly underdeveloped romance that starts and goes nowhere. All this culminates in an ending that aims for damning relevance, but scarcely manages to deliver coherence.
It’s difficult to say anything substantial though when every character is reduced to a one-note shell by lack of dedicated screentime. Sunset Boulevard‘s Norma Desmond was a bundle of neuroses and delusions, a faded silent movie star emblematic of the collateral damage of Hollywood’s lust for the young and new. In comparison, her analogue Charlotte is here little more than a young starlet (apparently much older in Ken Bruen’s original novel, which would have made the role and the relationship with Mitchell edgier and more enthralling) with a hatred of the paparazzi and a single photograph posted across the city. A generous interpretation might say that she reflects a time when celebrities aren’t expected to be interesting as much as famous for fame’s sake, yet her pithy ‘business manager’ Jordan suggests that she has a decent body of work behind her (“If it weren’t for Monica Belluci, she’d be the most raped woman in European cinema.”).
Perhaps appropriately for a film with celebrity on the brain, the film’s aesthetics are very engaging. A lot of people have no time for Colin Farrell for a variety of reasons, but he’s had an easy charm in everything I’ve seen him in regardless of the quality of the film, an attribute which carries over here. His Cockney accent, dredged back from the depths after its original outing in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, hasn’t improved any and the role asks little of him other than to look various permutations of earnest, annoyed or conflicted, but he carries off the East End wide-boy look and has charisma to burn. David Thewlis channels Richard E. Grant’s Withnail for the drug-addled Jordan, getting all the film’s best lines and delivering them with louche disingenuity. Ray Winston ends up as yet another psychopathic big boss (prone to reading Ben Jonson in bed and suggested bouts of homosexuality – oh, the depth!) but even as a role he can do in his sleep, it’s still one he’s chosen for because he’s good at it. Anna Friel puts her inately adorable qualities front and centre as Mitchell’s cock-tease sister, despite her entire subplot proving completely redundant. I suppose it’s better to have a film with Anna Friel in it than not, but it’s a shame her obvious talents are dumped in the film’s least rewarding avenue. Keira Knightley fares even less well playing a role that is obviously a mirror to her own life, but seems petulant and moody. Knightley in real life at least comes across as humourously self-effacing, a quality desperately lacking in the blank Charlotte.
On the technical side, cinematographer Chris Menges captures London beautifully, contrasting the neon lights of its main streets with the grimy underbelly of its back avenues and dilapidated decadence of the wasted-riches Holland Park houses. The camera captures the idea of a city and culture blinded by the thrill of hollow spectacle and stardom better than the meandering story ever could, while mostly free of the usual editing gimmicks that this kind of British film usually employs to distract from the lack of expertise elsewhere. The decision to frame in 16:9 is an odd one, but does sort of help engender the film’s retro stylings. Sergio Pizzorno’s original score carries strong reverbs of Roy Budd’s iconic Get Carter theme without overdoing the mimicry, while the rest of the soundtrack comprises an excellent selection of lesser-known ’60s tracks.
Those visual and aural strengths keep London Boulevard watchable, often in spite of itself. An electric atmosphere and strong cast can carry a film a long way, but never ultimately disguise when a script has this little idea of where it wants to go or what it wants to say. You’re left with a film that looks good, has a distinctive vibe, yet goes rapidly downhill once the effect of the dazzling first impression wears off. In other words, it becomes the very thing it thinks it is satirizing.