'London Fields': TIFF Review

Novelist Martin Amis has no luck with his screen adaptations.

Director Matthew Cullen, best known for his Katy Perry/"California Gurls" music video, was not the right man for the job.

London Fields presents the most staggering gulf in quality between a novel and a film adaptation in recent memory. This first feature by music video director Matthew Cullen is a complete botch from top to bottom, a thorough degrading and coarsening of Martin Amis dazzling 1989 novel, which is a bit surprising since the author receives co-screenwriting credit.  Shot two years ago, this off-putting and messy looking film was world premiered at the Toronto Film Festival but has scant distribution deals lined up internationally and is unlikely to penetrate very far into the marketplace despite the name talent involved.

David Cronenberg was the first director in line to make this story of a beautiful young “murderee” who foresees her own death and engages a washed-up novelist to document it; that match-up would undoubtedly have been a least interesting. Other filmmakers who also tried to mount a production of the wild story, which is set in a period of intense societal turmoil, included Michael Winterbottom, Shekhar Kapur and David Mackenzie.

It could be sworn as evidence in court that Cullen, best known for his Katy Perry "California Gurls" music video, was not the right man for the job; the film looks messy and unattractive, no actions are convincingly motivated and the actors are seen to considerable disadvantage.  Not for a moment is the viewer given reason to engage with what’s happening onscreen, thus this merely adds to the bad luck Amis has had seeing his novels adapted to the screen, what with The Rachel Papers in 1989 and Dead Bodies in 2000.

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On the page, one is swept into the dark, mysterious doings by the sheer brilliance of the language, its constantly inventive and surprising tone and the puzzling behavior of the characters. On the screen, there is instant turn-off at the sight of an unappealing and unproductive American writer, Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton) arriving to stay at the opulently vulgar London flat of British writer Mark Asprey (Jason Isaacs), where he shortly meets the object of every man’s fascination, the stunning Nicola Six (Amber Heard).

Although ill, the ironically named Samson is creatively stimulated by Nicola, who is to every man what he needs her to be; to Samson, she is just the thing to get him writing again, and he has reason to believe that the murderee’s murderer will be the coarse lower class criminal Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), for whom Nicola is a classy girl who needs the rough stuff he can dish out. Then there’s pretty boy banker and married would-be sugar daddy Guy Clinch (Theo James) who’s so bamboozled by Nicola’s beauty that he actually believes her claim to being a virgin.

So comprehensively does the film fail to represent the labyrinthian literary wonders of Amis’ book that it scarcely seems worthwhile to detail its universal shortcomings. What should be noted, however, are two pertinent demerits unrelated to novelistic fidelity.  The first issue is that the film is physically ugly, beginning with the mediocre special effects meant to join with stock footage to evoke a world in an advanced state of deterioration and joined by grungy production design that makes even posh settings appear uninviting.

The second overriding truth is that the performers are ill-served one and all. Thornton is drab, with no spark or energy at all, an absence that cannot excused by his character’s ailments. Sturgess pushes Keith’s loutishness to an insufferable degree, always gaping with his mouth wide open to exhibit his ghastly set of teeth, often sticking his tongue out and invariably leaning in close to others to intimidate them and, no doubt, allow them to savor his exquisite-smelling breath.  Really bad and evil guys are usually a gift to actors, but this character is unbearable.  As for James, there’s not much you can do with the role of a total sap.

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Heard is certainly one of the most beautiful actresses on the screen today and she’s been perfectly fine in her early starring role in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane and in limited-demand secondary roles in the likes of The Rum Diary. Nicola undoubtedly represents the biggest, most demanding part she’s had and, on the basis of how all the others comes off, it may not be fair to entirely blame her for not being able to carry the film as the role requires; she probably didn’t have much help. But the quicksilver shifts of mood and attitude and intent are not sufficiently precise and her Nicola too often seems mores a standard-issue tease than an especially rare species bird with uniquely exquisite plumage and an incurable dark streak.

Heard’s husband Johnny Depp turns up unbilled as a facially scarred and outrageously accoutered gangland boss and darts-throwing champion named Chick Purchase; one must award Amis second prize, after Thomas Pynchon in Inherent Vice, for the bizarrely imaginative naming of characters in modern criminal underworld novels.     

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Production: Geyer Kosinsky Productions, Muse, Periscope Entertainment, Curiously Bright Entertainment, Head Gear Films, MindSky Entertainment, Tartan Films, Vedette Finance

Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard, Jim Sturgess, Johnny Depp, Theo James, Jason Isaacs, Jaimie Alexander, Lily Cole, Gemma Chan, Cara Delevingne

Director: Matthew Cullen

Screenwriters: Roberta Hanley, Martin Amis, based on the novel by Martin Amis

Producers: Chris Hanley, Jordan Gertner, Geyer Kosinsky

Executive producers: Debra Rodman, Reno Antoniades, Lilly Bright, Vikram Chatwel, Sam Englebardt, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Phil Hunt, Anthony Jabre, David Guy Levy, Jeff Most, Gia Muresan, Compton Ross, Fernandop Sulichin, Sandy van Heteren, Tricia van Klaveren, Darryn Welch

Director of photography: Guillermo Navarro

Production designer: Jeremy Reed

Costume designer: Susie Coulthard

Editors: Fred Fouquet, Joe Plenys

Music: Toydrum, Benson Taylor

Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham, Martin Ware

118 minutes