Director Anthony Minghella’s most successful films have trotted all over the globe: from the Sahara (The English Patient) to Venice (The Talented Mr. Ripley) to Romania (which doubled for the Appalachian mountains in Cold Mountain). All of those films have one thing in common: they were based on novels that Minghella adapted for the screen. For Breaking and Entering, his first original script in fifteen years, Minghella comes back home to London. Instead of the epic scales enjoyed by Mountain and Patient, Breaking covers less geography but delves deeper into the space between people, both lovers and strangers, and shows how someone can go from one to the other, in either direction.
Jude Law will no doubt incur cynical barbs as landscape architect named Will Francis, a role that seems to closely imitate life. The famed philandering bachelor here lives with his estranged girlfriend Liv (Robin Wight Penn, affecting a Scandinavian accent). Her autistic daughter, Bea (Poppy Rogers), suffers from a wide array of afflictions, including insomnia, phobias, and an obsessive exercise regime, that has put the couple to the test and landed them in counseling. It’s clear by the time we meet them that much damage has been done, and that they are at a major crossroads. At one point, he even enjoys the company of Oana (the great Vera Farmiga), a Russian prostitute who enters Will’s car to unartistically spell out Minghella’s grand themes in Breaking.
Will does not enjoy much better luck at the office. His hubris allows him to think that he can raise the plight of those less fortunate by his designs, and his London neighborhood of King’s Cross is a cross-section of the classes. However, there is still a high crime contingent, and Will and his associate Sandy (Martin Freeman) find their expensive loft office the victim of burglaries, with their computer designs stolen among the loot. Will’s struggle to chase down the perpetrator eventually lands him on a journey to meet Amira (Juliette Binoche), the Bosnian mother of Miro (Rafi Gavron). Unlike Will’s charmed surroundings, Amira lives in a run-down housing project. Her lack of means, combined with her ravishing looks, trigger something in Will, and it is not long before the two characters from different worlds have united in the bedroom.
As Will embarks on his affair with Amira, Minghella works overtime to make the hero Breaking of breaking sympathetic. His compassion for those worse off for him is supposed to make him more complex, but it plays off a tad too facile to register redemption. It is akin to US magazine’s “They’re just like us!” section, in which hidden paparazzi photograph nouveau riche celebrities doing mundane things like talking on their cell phone and eating ice cream. This in no way makes them look similar to average people; people are far more disconnected from each other by the problems they face and their means of solving them than they are connected by the little things they happen to enjoy equally. And so Will’s compassion, honorable as it may be, fails to build a bridge between his upper-class woes and Amira’s lower-class ones.
Law is charming, if little more, but his female co-stars are sensational. Farmiga makes the most other trivial character and minimal screen time, and Binoche recalls her early work in the 1980s, turning Amira’s earthiness into pathos. Ultimately, though, it’s Penn who stands out most of all with her spot-on performance, replete with perfect accent and attention to all the minute details that transform a performance from merely posing to really breathing in a character’s shoes. I accepted every frame of her relationship with Bea and with Will. Her ferocity to make every line count is what anchors much of Breaking.
What works better is Minghella’s ardor for London, and visually (the cinematography was by Benhoit Delhomme), the movie is a stunner. The city itself serves as a symbol for the diversity of its inhabitants, and speaks volumes. So much so, that it’s a shame that Minghella then forces his characters to do the same thing.