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Breaking and Entering (Anthony Minghella, 2006)

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  • noelbotevera
    A better film than Babel Noel Vera I haven t liked an Anthony Minghella film in goodness knows how long. I agreed when critics dubbed Truly, Madly, Deeply
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 29, 2007
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      A better film than "Babel"

      Noel Vera

      I haven't liked an Anthony Minghella film in goodness knows how
      long. I agreed when critics dubbed "Truly, Madly, Deeply" (1991) as
      a far more intelligent alternative to "Ghost" (faint praise,
      considering, but there it is); I thought his "The English Patient"
      some five years later was one of the more passionate and less
      undeserving films to have won a Best Picture Oscar recently (let me
      put it this way--it actually seemed too good to win one of those
      golden doorstops). "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999) was stylish and
      amusing, only Matt Damon made for an unengaging Ripley, easily
      upstaged by the charming Jude Law; his "Cold Mountain" (2003)
      scraped bottom for me--Jude Law, so enjoyable in "Ripley," was
      lifeless in this, a Civil War drama set in a North Carolina that
      somehow manages not to look anything like the actual Carolinas (much
      of it was shot in Romania).

      There's plenty to dislike in "Breaking and Entering," starting with
      the title--it's both literal (a gang of young thieves break into an
      architectural office) and metaphorical (people breaking into other
      people's lives, stealing a measure of comfort or pleasure, taking
      some kind of advantage from them). It's just the kind of
      sophisticated arthouse thesis viewers like to discuss over lattes
      afterwards (come to think of it, Minghella's always been the kind of
      refined filmmaker arthouse viewers love to patronize). The film is
      too civilized--it raises troubling questions, treats them with kid
      gloves, and at the ninety-minute mark wraps them all up in a neat
      and tidy package--well, not too neat and tidy; Minghella even adds
      frayed edges Martha-Stewart style to give the whole thing a
      comforting rustic feel.

      But but but butÂ…Minghella's strength as a filmmaker has always been
      less his impeccable good taste (and we know what Godard always said
      about good taste) and liberal values and more his love for
      characters and the actors playing them; for the first time in a long
      while, without the distracting background of genre conventions (the
      noirish plot of "Ripley") or epic historical settings (the Civil War
      in "Cold Mountain"), that love has come out loud and clear. More,
      Minghella's assembled a cast--Law again (a favorite of his,
      apparently), Binoche (another Minghella veteran), Robin Wright Penn,
      Vera Farmiga and Ray Winstone--to flesh out characters who respond
      to his affection with a warmth and glow of their own. This isn't a
      great film at all; but it is, I submit, a quite enjoyable one,
      modest in its ambitions, charming in its refusal to hide overt
      sentiment, unabashed humanism.

      It's a far better film, I submit further, than Alejandro Gonzalez
      Inarritu's much ballyhooed "Babel"--here we learn that, yes, we're
      all interconnected, but the connections are more quotidian, less
      forced (Binoche's teenage son breaks into Law's office; Law finds
      out, follows boy, meets Binoche; Law is divided between loyalty to
      his wife (Penn) and growing attraction for Binoche; Winstone as the
      police officer investigating the break-in and Farmiga as an
      intruding prostitute watch from the sidelines with weary yet caring
      eyes). The characters (as in "Babel") don't make smart decisions,
      but Minghella (unlike Inarritu) lingers over these people, dwells on
      their moments of decision, shows us, often with strong
      identification devices and careful preparatory details, how
      reasonably intelligent and compassionate men and women can do less
      than intelligent and uncompassionate actions. Inarritu seems more
      concerned with maintaining some kind of edgy texture, maintaining
      his circus balancing-act of a plot. If there's a flaw in Minghella's
      approach, it's that it's a touch too cavalier with the plot (I
      mentioned a tidy resolution; maybe the better word is "optimistic"),
      but even that I understand--the plot's just bone structure on which
      Minghella hangs his beloved characters, working out their complex
      interrelationships.

      Law is key to the picture, of course: he manages enough comic banter
      with Farmiga as the tough-talking prostitute that you buy the notion
      that a man would have such a beautiful woman in her car and just
      talk to her. With Penn as his wife he has a more subdued
      relationship--Penn's daughter (Poppy Rogers) is autistic, concern
      over her care has taken over their marriage, and you spot a kind of
      puzzled grimace flit over his face from time to time as he gingerly
      feels with a metaphorical tongue the gap where their love for each
      other used to be. Perhaps his most exciting--and dicey--relationship
      is with Binoche: as mother of the felon he's supposed to turn in,
      his courting her has the feel of exploitation, no matter how noble
      the intentions; you see him shutting down his cognitive abilities
      before he walks in her door, just because the ethical implications
      of what he's trying to do are too complicated to work out. Law has
      always seemed smart in a callow way, with a boyish need to please
      everyone, including his audience (which may be why he was all wrong
      for the remake of "Alfie"--Michael Caine's original interpretation
      always had this element of reptilian hedonism in it that made one's
      fine hairs stand on edge). He wants to please Farmiga, so he lets
      her into his car; he wants Binoche happy, so he tries to sleep with
      her; he desperately wants to love Penn, and has done so for so long
      he's gone numb with the effort, allowed her to drift away.

      Minghella has the three women respond to Law in their own ways,
      according to their character. Farmiga is a knockout combination of
      creamy, pink-nippled body and quick-witted intelligence; with a
      glance she sizes up Law's character and knows just how far she can
      go, what she can get away with. Binoche's worried mother is a lonely
      wanderer who reaches out hungrily for Law's pity; the only
      complication to that situation is the fierce core of love she has
      for her wayward son. Penn's is the most understated, and most
      difficult to appreciate--she displays a wonderful physical warmth
      towards her mentally handicapped daughter, and she's brave enough to
      show a constantly lined, careworn face to Law (and us)--a face that,
      at unexpected moments, just when you've about given up on the two
      (on them), can suddenly express affection for her husband, or
      remorse for the moribund nature of their marriage.

      The film's had a lukewarm response from American critics. I suspect
      it's part of the times, when a reasonably intelligent and well-made
      picture isn't enough--movies have to be wilder, more intense, more
      novel, more relevant somehow; a somewhat feel-good film about middle-
      to-upper class adults and their complicated lives just seems
      inadequate. Can't argue with that sentiment--these are not happy
      times--but then I can't quite bring myself to disapprove of this
      ostensible failure.

      (First published in Businessworld, 3/23/07)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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