Breaking and Entering, the latest film by Anthony Minghella, climaxes in a welter of apologies. Everyone in London, it seems, has cause for remorse—the burglar, the philanderer, the seamstress, the budding gymnast—and for my part, I regret that I lost count of the number of times the words “I’m sorry” were uttered on screen.
A schematic exercise in liberal, privileged guilt—in the tradition of Crash and Grand Canyon, but without the prepackaged southern California anomie—Breaking and Entering moves through a series of moral and social crises as if they were yoga poses and comes to rest with a smile of virtuous complacency on its face.
The star of the movie is Jude Law, who is perhaps too adept for his own good at portraying an entitled, narcissistic charmer. Handsome, physically graceful and articulate, Law plays Will, a successful architect whose firm has opened a spacious new office in the rough-edged King’s Cross section of north London. Will shares a sleek town house with Liv (Robin Wright Penn), his half-Swedish girlfriend of many years, and her 13-year-old daughter, Bea (Poppy Rogers), who has autism.
Bea’s condition, Liv’s remoteness and Will’s absorption in his work combine to put a strain on their domestic relations, and Will’s nerves are further shaken by a series of break-ins at the office. One of the perpetrators is an acrobatic teenager named Miro (Rafi Gavron), a Bosnian refugee, half Muslim and half Serb, who lives with his mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche), in a battered housing project. When Will discovers Miro’s involvement in the robberies, he does what any tormented bobo architect would do in his place, namely, has sex with the boy’s mother.
It seems to be an axiom of Minghella’s practice as a filmmaker that, in each of his movies, exactly one person is allowed to be funny. (Rueful irony, of the sort practiced by both Will and his partner, Sandy, played by Martin Freeman, doesn’t count.) In The Talented Mr. Ripley, the job fell to the lucky Law; in Cold Mountain, Renée Zellweger got the assignment. (The English Patient would appear to be an exception to the rule.) Here, happily, the task belongs to Vera Farmiga, playing a Russian prostitute who shows up in Will’s car to drink coffee, squirm to some loud music and discuss the themes of the movie.
Sadly, she doesn’t stick around for very long, and Will’s sexual attention turns to Amira, who is not funny at all, though Binoche does what she can to infuse her gloom with a touch of warmth. Sandy, meanwhile, gingerly acts on his infatuation with one of the office cleaners (Caroline Chikezie)—“Lattes have been drunk,” he announces, which means that they’re dating. I guess the best way for entitled, liberal Englishmen to address the problem of inequality is to sleep their way down the social ladder. Perhaps they should even get a tax deduction for doing so.
What saves Breaking and Entering from foundering altogether in earnest self-regard is Minghella’s evident affection for London, a city of inexhaustible architectural and human variety. Other, less cautious writers and film-makers have immersed themselves in the contradictory and chaotic realities of modern London and returned with a credible picture of life in a class-riven, conscience-stricken milieu. Minghella, more concerned with preconceived problems, manufactures unsatisfying solutions. Be nice. Listen. Apologize. I’m sorry, but it isn’t enough.
A.O. Scott/The New York Times
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org