A screenwriter any actor would jump to work with, William Monaghan shot to the scribing A-list following his Oscar win for his magnificent work on Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture winning remake of Infernal Affairs; The Departed. London Boulevard, his latest foray into crime fare – this time set on our turf, ostensibly – is overflowing with talent, and though Monahgan’s directorial debut is a considerably lesser work than his previous, there is still plenty to applaud in this wincingly brutal albeit uneven film.
Mitchell (Colin Farrell) has just been released from prison after a 3-year stint for GBH. Quickly reconnecting with old mate Billy (Ben Chaplin), he nevertheless rejects his old ways in favour of a cleaner lifestyle, serving as a bodyguard and pap-buffer for the reclusive, constantly hounded actress, Charlotte (Keira Knightley). However, motivated by the murder of an old friend, Mitch finds himself dragged back into his old life, turning to the hot-tempered Rob Gant (Ray Winstone) to locate the killers. In this stead, though, he winds up putting just about everyone around him in harm’s way.
The chief worry about London Boulevard is whether or not Monaghan, an American screenwriter, can encapsulate a convincing London that locals will identify with. Impressively, much like Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream (coincidentally also starring Farrell), this intimately-staged drama gathers in the various nooks and crannies of London’s East End while keeping the big picture that is London’s cityscape ever clear, with Canary Wharf and the Gherkin frequently visible in the skyline. Monaghan’s lingo, likely to disorientate even the most veteran Cockneys, isn’t as crassly refined as his work for Scorsese, but it has the same acid tongue, and there are some sure zingers along the way, which the cast rattle through with considerable gusto.
Colin Farrell is especially praise-worthy in the lead role of Mitch; pretty enough to invite sympathy yet also tough of nerve and therefore unafraid to get his hands dirty, he is an inspired choice who carries a certain working class charm while still managing to dash in a dinner suit. Knightley, though sparsely placed throughout, emotes well despite her conspicuous absence in the climax, robbing the bloody finale of some vital pathos. Also of note is Ray Winstone, whose venom-filled shouting match with Farrell is the film’s highlight, and brings both actors dangerously close to popping a vein. David Thewlis as Charlotte’s neurotic, drug-addled business manager Jordan, and Anna Friel as Mitchell’s wino sister Briony (reminding us that, yes, she is English), meanwhile, make for potent comic relief. The casting of Sanjeev Bhaskar – best known to British audiences as the host of the BBC’s The Kumars at No. 42 – as Briony’s latest suitor, however, is utterly distracting.
The material is indeed very conventional – the love of a good woman turning a thug’s heart to mush has been done to death, while Mitch and Billy’s relationship shallowly echoes Michael and Fredo Corleone’s, and the mixture of comedy and action is strictly aiming to ape Guy Ritchie – but in smartly lessening the focus on the love story (to the point that it comes off as quite expedited and one note), Monaghan instead creates a gripping insight into the city’s crime strata. It at times dabbles too often in crime cliches – as though written by someone coming off of a Sopranos box-set bender – but it is also uncomfortably tense and unsettlingly brutal, having a disturbing lack of concern for the numerous innocents winding up dead as a result of Mitch’s predicament. If the intention was to turn the stomach, then the aural design of the film’s various beatings and stabbings is masterful.
London Boulevard is not fresh or original, but it is well-acted, solidly directed, and features a rousing soundtrack. It is thoroughly unpleasant, though; don’t expect a happy night out at the pictures.
London Boulevard’s video will fill the frame of your HDTV and indeed looks surprisingly spectacular in high-def, boasting a gritty vibrancy in both the day and night-time scenes. Some grain is occasionally visible, yet frankly it just helps accentuate the semi-noirsh tone Monaghan is trying to evoke.
Aurally, lots of dialogue-heavy scenes won’t exactly give your sound system a run for its money, but the soundtrack – consisting primarily of rock cuts from the 60s and 70s – sounds fantastic.
Cast and Crew Interviews (37 minutes) – Largely dry talking head fare featuring a sizable portion of the cast, yet it won’t be of much interest to anyone who has seen the film as they essentially just recount the plot. Monaghan chimes in with the most compelling tidbits, discussing his upbringing and what London means to him.
Also includes a theatrical trailer and that’s your lot.
London Boulevard is released on Blu-ray from today.