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LONDON -– Irish crime writer Ken Bruen has a stylish line in mean-streets poetry that Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan sashays winningly into London Boulevard, his first feature as director. A mix of 1960s Brit gangster-movie flourish and 1940s Hollywood noir, it satisfies not only in the tradition of yarns boiled hard and wry, but as a savvy comment on fame and ambition.
With Colin Farrell poised and entirely credible as a tough guy, and a performance by Keira Knightley that trades cleverly on her stardom, London Boulevard should please audiences that like a tall tale served slightly bitter. Marketed to an informed niche, the film should reap just rewards.
Monahan demonstrated his handle on the nature of those prone to hot tempers and sudden violence in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, and he brings along Ray Winstone from that film as a touchstone in the role of a gang-leader named Gant. Farrell gives his most measured performance yet as Mitchell, a frighteningly ruthless hard man whose three-year term in prison has prompted an urge for redemption, and who turns down Gant’s offer of work.
Bruen’s tale follows a well-trod path with echoes of Sunset Boulevard as Mitchell tries to go straight by signing on as a handyman come bodyguard for superstar actress Charlotte (Knightley) who lives in a London mansion with her guardian, a former actor named Jordan played with bohemian flair by David Thewlis.
Unlike Norma Desmond, the last thing Charlotte wants is another close-up. Having been the rage of European films, her image is everywhere on magazines, newspapers and billboards, and she is hounded constantly by paparazzi. Bruen’s story, adapted sharply by Monahan, complicates her self-obsession with the matter-of-fact danger brought about by Mitchell’s dangerous past and present.
For Charlotte to be photographed means personal invasion, for Mitchell to be photographed with her after he runs afoul of Gant could mean death for both of them. Not to mention Mitchell’s tramp of a sister, played with mischievous guile by Anna Friel. She matches Thewlis in going to the top but not over it as characters that can only exist in crime stories but are nonetheless great fun.
Winstone’s role is a familiar one but it is testament to his screen authority that he makes his hoodlum genuinely scary, and it’s to Farrell’s credit that when they go nose to nose, he gives the veteran a run for his money.
No one will be surprised by the way the story plays out, but the pleasures are many. They include Farrell’s small reflective smiles when things go wrong and Knightley’s sly depiction of a beautiful woman who has fame and riches but remains needy and selfish. Not to mention Chris Menges’ gleaming cinematography of London at night; and a soundtrack that features the Stones, Dylan, the Yardbirds and Kasabian that succeeds in evoking the ’60s while sounding entirely in the present.
Production companies: GK Films
Opened: Nov. 26 in U.K. (U.S. distributor: FilmDistrict)
Cast: Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, David Thewlis, Anna Friel, Ray Winstone
Director/screenwriter: William Monahan
Producers: Quentin Curtis, Tim Headington, Graham King, William Monahan
Executive producers: Redmond Morris, Colin Vaines
Director of photography: Chris Menges
Production designer: Martin Childs
Music: Sergio Pizzomo
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editors: Dody Dorn, Robb Sullivan
Rated R, running time 103 minutes
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