Breaking and Entering (2006): Minghella (Oscar Winner for The English Patient) Contemorary Film, Starring Jude Law

Having won the Oscar Award for a good historical epic, The English Patient, and having failed with a lousy one, Cold Mountain, its good to see Anthony Minghella go back to the kind of smaller, personal films that had marked the beginnings of his career.
Ambitiously intriguing, if not satisfying, Breaking and Entering is Minghella’s first contemporary film since his impressive debut, the 1991 comedy, Truly Madly Deeply. Ultimately, the film is overreaching in its grasp (which is good), but it’s also contrived and overwrought (which is not).

An anatomy of one problematic multi-racial neighborhood, Londons Kings Cross, Breaking and Entering is the first Minghella film in a long time based on his original screenplay. Minghella returns to his roots for a moody, socially relevant drama that, in its exploration of race, class, and sex, recalls last years Oscar-winner Crash, as well as a number of British films, such as Frears Dirty Pretty Things.

A warning: Dont be misled by the film’s title. Once you see “Breaking and Entering” it is accurate and makes perfect sense, but on paper, it sounds like a caper or heist picture, which is only one part of the multi-layered story.

Will Francis (Jude Law, who also starred in Minghella’s Cold Mountain) is a successful architect who goes through a moral and personal crisis upon realizing that his life is meaningless. The film begins with Wills voiceover, stating that he and his longtime Swedish-American companion Liv (Robin Wright Penn) have lost touch with each others needs. Liv has given up her career as a documentarian to take care of her daughter Bea, an autistic girl obsessed with gymnastics.

Will partners with Sandy (Martin Freeman) in a prosperous landscape architecture firm, Green Effect. The duo work on a project to redirect the canal through the heart of the reconstruction program in Kings Cross, an area known for its high crime, prostitution, and other urban ills.

Despite warnings that this is a bad neighborhood for an elegant office, the two men decide to set shop there. Its a courageous act for which they immediately pay a price, when a gang of hoodlums, headed by Miro (Rafi Gavron), a Bosnian teen, breaks in and steals their Apple computer and other equipment.

Needless to say, at first, the prime suspect is the cleaning crew, which is of African descent. This upsets Sandy, because hes sexually attracted to one of the African female members.
The hoodlums pull off the heist twice in succession, causing Will and Sandy to start a nighttime stakeout of their own offices in an attempt to catch the thieves. Perceiving Wills frequent absences as signs of domestic trouble, Liv seeks help from a therapist (Juliet Stevenson), while Will starts to look outside the relationship for emotional fulfillment.

Enter (without breaking) a feisty and chatty Romanian hooker (Vera Farmiga), who joins Will on his stakeouts, and the two engage in a platonic friendship. One evening, while having coffee together, Will spots Miro. Its turning point in the movie, after which heavy-handed, contrived melodramatics kicks in.

Will follows Miro to the bleak council estate where he lives with his mother Amira (Juliette Binoche), a Bosnian Muslim seamstress still suffering from the war that had killed her Serb husband and has made her adolescent son a petty criminal. The next day, Will shows up with clothes for Amira to mend.

Rather than report the thief’s address to the police officer (Ray Winstone), Will starts courting the reticent Amira, at first pretending to need her skills. He leaves his card with her, suggesting that Miro comes to his office to pursue an interest in architecture.

When Bea gets involved in an accident on the construction site, Wills relationship with Liv comes to a halt. Miro’s unjust arrest makes Will realize how foolishly he had jeopardized his true romance.

In the plots most improbable note, the tentative friendship between Will and Amira evolves into a full-fledged affair. Soon after, when Amira finds out Wills real motivation, she feels betrayed and decides to strike back, by blackmailing him with compromising photos she had taken.

Minghella is an intelligent filmmaker, but, as was evident in The English Patient, his forte is not linear storytelling. Thus, in the midst of the suspenseful yarn, there are digressions in the form of quasi-philosophical discussions and even moralistic attitudinizing. While this strategy worked well, enriching the text of English Patient, here, it comes across as an imposition.

Minghella indulges in symbolism, turning a potentially taut and timely yarn into an overlong melodrama, further marred by a clear closure that negates the predominantly ambiguous tone. By the films end, Amira and Miro go back to Sarajevo, and Will and Liv are reunited. Can life go back to its normal course, with no apparent changes on the protags after such traumatic experiences

As an effort at a realistic, slice of life movie, centering on a group of people bound together by random yet fateful events, Breaking and Entering is only partially successful. The movie is at once overdeveloped and underdeveloped. For example, some of the details that initially sound crucial, such as the daughters autism, or even the interracial mixing, later turn out to be irrelevant or unimportant.

Initially, the films characters, all confused and conflicted, resist stereotypes, but then they succumb to the directors uneven treatment. Working (too) diligently to set up an intricate plot, Minghella contrasts Will’s unfulfilling relationship with Liv with the bond he develops with Amira. These parallel structures are too symmetrical, resulting in a film in which the characters are used as pawns, as the tale heads toward its pat and improbable ending.

In a manner that recalls the presupposition of Soderberghs sex, lies & videotape, the acts of larceny and deceit become relative, a matter of degree, rather than absolutes. As viewers, we are asked to place the various breaking-ins on a scale. Which is worse, the movie seems to be asking: the physical act or larceny, sexual adultery, or the emotional deceit

The film is essentially an examination of culture-collisions, distances between people of different nationalities and races. However, unfortunately, Minghella relegates the Bosnians, the film’s most interesting persona, to a secondary status, instead placing emphasis on the rich white couple that’s too self-absorbed in their personal problems.

Rather disappointingly, as the conflicted protagonist, Jude Law comes across as too self-absorbed and even opaque, and he may be too intelligent to play a man who commits such errors with no self-awareness.

French actress Binoche, who won Supporting Oscar for Minghellas “The English Patient,” gives the films gravity (and most compelling performance), inhabiting the role of a protective mother and war widow with conviction, even if makes little sense that she would be willingly participate in an illicit affair.

Martin Freeman, as Will’s business partner, gives a rich, complex performance, and as the fatherless teenager, goaded on by his Serbian uncle to continue stealing despite his inclinations, Gavron is a new talent to watch. Cast of the secondary characters is good, particularly Ray Winstone as the well-meaning investigating detective, and Vera Farmiga, as a local hooker, who runs some funny commentary on her profession.

A zeitgeist film, “Breaking and Entering” is nonjudgmental and compelling up to a point. Minghellas good intention and humanism are undeniable, but the film walks a fine line between a subtle tale and an earnest social melodrama of a neighborhood in transition. What could have been an intelligent adult drama, about the cost of urban renewal, the aftermath of the Balkan war, Britains escalating problems due to enormous immigrant population, increasingly becomes a contrived melodrama.

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