London Boulevard comes with a high pedigree; it’s the directorial debut of screenwriter William Monahan, the writer behind such films as Kingdom of Heaven, The Departed, Body of Lies, and Edge of Darkness. And it stars Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Ben Chaplin, and Eddie Marsan. That’s a damn fine British cast, with Irish Farrell in his post-prima donna days. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be a tightly-written and impressive little indie crime movie. Except that Monahan has decided to make his directing debut with a self-indulgent, Hollywood-obsessed script that splits its aim in two.
On the one hand, Boulevard tells the tale of ex-con Mitchell as he’s released from prison and has to rely somewhat on old friend Billy Norton, played by Chaplin. Billy is a small-time hood obviously at the beck and call of a much more powerful master, and he sets Mitchell up in a furnished flat. Mitchell accompanies Billy on a few criminal errands around town, doing his best to remain uninvolved. But it’s not long before the local crime boss Gant, played by Winstone, catches wind of Mitchell’s reputation and realizes he’s got more going on upstairs than Billy, and would likely make a very good addition to his organization. Winstone is normally a great actor, but here he decides to underplay much of his role in a way that simply doesn’t work. It’s an obvious inclination, wanting to play against type and not simply ratchet himself up to 11 as a screaming, psychotic crime boss, but the way he throws away lines and subverts much of the part isn’t any better. And considering what a sharp writer Monahan usually is, here he’s just going through the motions and giving us a very generic crime storyline. It seems as though he’s trying for a certain amount of naturalism, showing us Mitchell and his mates going about the day-to-day in working class neighborhoods. But it’s still a film that stars Colin Farrell, a movie star, and it’s still an arch crime film. By sanding it down, Monahan’s made it into something not clever enough with not nearly enough going on to keep it interesting, because he’s certainly never going to get it to the place where it’s a natural day-in-the-life. There’s a theme involving Farrell choosing to be a good, upstanding citizen because he knows if he were to choose to be a gangster he would disappear down the rabbit hole and become a horrible human being that not even a crime boss could trust, but it’s lost amid the shuffle. And that’s because…
Boulevard also tells the tale of ex-con Mitchell hired by famous actress Charlotte, Keira Knightley, to protect her from the paparazzi as she hides out on her London estate. Her best friend Jordon, played by David Thewlis, has been keeping her company and obviously has a bit of a crush on her. Jordan is a burned out actor-himself, and Monahan uses him as a mouthpiece for a lot of self-indulgent witticisms about acting and Hollywood. Self-referential films about Hollywood rarely work in my opinion, particularly when trying to play it straight. The last thing I usually want to see is a film about actors and the narcissistic world of Hollywood. They’re like books about writers. If an artist doesn’t have anything to say and has to resort to self-indulgent navel-gazing and purposelessness, it’s beyond rare to find a compelling story springing out of that particular garbage heap. And this layer of phony, constructed story also manages to destroy any level of credible naturalism Monahan is trying to build with the crime storyline.
For all that, there’s a sweet romance with the damaged, Charlotte character, and Monahan uses the vast differences between Charlotte and and Mitchell for them to take a more honest look at their lives. This could be Notting Hill done as a crime drama instead of as a comedy. But Monahan can’t decide which story he really wants to tell, and splits his time between them equally, which results in neither getting adequate screen time or development, and both failing. The romance between Charlotte and Mitchell never builds into enough or truly captures our interest or empathy, and the crime story with Gant just ends up being a by-the-numbers routine with not enough unique details or characteristics to elevate it above the rote. Chaplin, for all of his effort, just doesn’t have the requisite charisma to make his role as Mitchell’s mate into the kind of morally-adrift, sleazy best friend that actually resonates; likewise Eddie Marsan is wasted as a corrupt police investigator. Anna Friel registers as Mitchell’s mess of a sister, turning in perhaps the most memorable performance of the film, but it’s a role that gets short shrift and less screen time than the character deserves.
It’s hard to say whether Monahan falls victim to being too in love with Hollywood, too in love with crime films, or too in love with his own writing. But he fails to make strong directorial choices, one of which needs to be better determining the central focus of the film. Boulevard has potential, but it’s a potential that goes lost. Next time out, Monahan would do better to attempt less and give up his wide, scatterscot aim for a narrower scope allowing himself to do more within its defined sights.