William Monahan’s 2010 directorial debut, London Boulevard, now available on DVD, is a fast paced thriller-romance mash up with a fine cast of talented actors. Given the pedigrees of those involved—Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, David Thewlis and half a dozen others, not to mention Monahan himself, after all the man had won an Oscar for the screenplay of The Departed and now he was directing his own screenplay adapted from a Ken Bruen novel—expectations were great. Unfortunately, sometimes with great expectations you wind up disappointed. London Boulevard is by no means a bad film, it’s just not as good as you want it to be.
Farrell plays a gangland tough newly released from prison. He is looking to go straight, but just when you think you’re out of it, they drag you back in, at least they try. His screw up buddy (Ben Chaplin) is working as a collector for a vicious crime boss (Winstone) who wants to recruit Farrell, but obviously the tough as nails Farrell has other ideas. He gets himself a job of sorts acting as a kind of bodyguard for a depressed movie star (Knightley) hounded by a gaggle of camera toting paparazzi, and the plot moves back and forth between the Winstone’s machinations and Knightley’s charms. There’s plenty of violence, just a bit of nudity, a wonderful musical score, and a good deal of beautiful photography in and around London.
The problem is there is too much going on—much more than can be developed adequately in an hour and a half. Farrell has a nutty sister spaced out on drugs and alcohol (Anna Friel) who does a nice job wearing sexy costumes, but whose function in the context of the larger plot is tenuous. David Thewlis is a kind of hippie enabler for the dysfunctional Knightley. He embodies world weariness but never gets truly fleshed out as a character. Moreover as good an actor as he is, his sudden turn into a tough is a mite unconvincing. There is also a sub-plot about a murdered homeless man, who for some unexplained reason is important to Farrell.
The Farrell-Knightley romance never really sparkles. It can’t compete for attention with the dynamic conflict between the sadistic Winstone and Farrell. Too often the romantic scenes seem to get in the way of the real story, possibly because Winstone does a remarkable job as the villain, but equally because, the romantic relationship is peripheral to the main plot. It, like the scenes involving his sister, could easily have been excised without any great loss. Again, it’s not that Knightley doesn’t dress up the film, it’s simply that her scenes raise expectations that are never realized. She plays no role in the main plot.
Also, I must say a word about the accents. There were too many instances where between the mumbling and the thick accents, I found it nearly impossible to understand what was being said. I have no doubt about the accuracy of the accents, but my own preference would be for comprehension.
That said, Farrell and company are great at the violence. The fights and beatings are as convincing as anyone could wish for. When he slams someone’s head into a glass on a table, it plays realistically; when he punches a woman in the face, she looks punched. Monahan likes to have the violence lash out from a kind of menacing calm that is especially nerve wracking. He manages to create so much tension that there are times when he doesn’t even have to actually show the violent act. He can leave it to the viewer to imagine he’s seen it.
The DVD includes “The Making of London Boulevard” as a special feature. This includes interviews with almost all the major actors and some commentary from Monahan about what he was trying to do. He talks about why he wanted to do a gangster movie that wasn’t a gangster movie and a romance than wasn’t a romance. He talks about why he wanted to set it in London, and he talks about movies that had some influence on his style; one specifically, Blow-Up is a particularly interesting suggestion because of all the images of photography in the film.