Disregard for the Law

Breaking and Entering

“I’m better than this bloody picture. When is someone going to make another <i>A.I.</i>?”

“I’m better than this bloody picture. When is someone going to make another A.I.?”

Rated 2.0

Writer-director Anthony Minghella makes individual and introspective movies: Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), Mr. Wonderful (1993), The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Cold Mountain (2003). They tend to be rather few and far between, as if to give evidence of the thought and care that goes into each one. His new film, Breaking and Entering, comes along on his customary three-year schedule, and it’s just as careful and thoughtful as we’ve come to expect. But sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t. In Breaking and Entering, Minghella’s care comes off as fussiness, his thought as navel-gazing.

Jude Law plays Will, an architect whose firm is designing an urban makeover for London’s King’s Cross, a volatile neighborhood teetering on the cusp between poverty and affected gentrification. In that area, Will’s warehouse office provides a tempting target for local gangs; they break in, stealing the firm’s computers and other valuables. When it happens a second time, Will and his partner (Martin Freeman) stake the place out at night, hoping to catch the culprits in the act. While shivering in Will’s SUV, they are accosted by a hooker (an amusing Vera Farmiga) who hopes to recruit Will as a client.

One night, Will’s stakeout pays off; he sees the gang’s point man, a teenage Bosnian immigrant named Miro (Rafi Gavron), clambering over the roof to break in through the skylight. Will chases Miro home, but just as the boy gets to his door Will holds back, hiding in the shadows when he sees Miro’s mother Amira (Juliette Binoche). Checking their door after they’ve gone inside, he sees that Amira works out of her home as a seamstress. The next day, Will brings her one of his torn coats to repair.

Minghella prepares us for this odd turn of plot by establishing Will’s unsatisfactory home life with his girlfriend Liv (Robin Wright Penn) and her 13-year-old daughter Bea (Poppy Rogers). Bea has unspecified behavioral problems—she won’t eat, she won’t sleep, she’s obsessed with gymnastics and she hoards batteries, even stealing the battery out of Will’s car-alarm keychain. Liv’s concern for Bea leaves Will frustrated and feeling excluded, and his eye turns to Amira. He brings her more clothes to alter for him and, inevitably, they wind up in bed.

That is, it’s inevitable in terms of the movie and the points Minghella wants to make. But the more intent Minghella seems on making these points, the more contrived and unconvincing Breaking and Entering becomes. The developing affair between Will and Amira strains credulity on its face, and there’s little in the way the two are played to make it easier to swallow. Law’s Will is wide-eyed and tense, while Binoche’s Amira is mutely wounded and forlorn. They’re both mopey, but on different levels and in different directions; the actors make eye contact, but as we think back on the movie the characters seem never to have looked at each other.

Will’s efforts to save his relationship with Liv and Bea seem as limp and halfhearted as everything else he does—his stakeout to catch the thieves, his affair with Amira, his efforts to discourage that brash hooker. He’s even late for his sessions with Bea’s therapist (Juliet Stevenson in a throwaway cameo) and uncommunicative when he finally shows up.

Minghella salts the movie with symbols, dropped in plain sight like Easter eggs meant to be found easily by a slow-witted child. The names Will, Liv and Bea are just the beginning of it; at key moments characters are caught in mirrors (from two angles, get it?), and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme plays with the focus, moving images strategically in and out of focus, as if to say, “Pay close attention right here.”

Despite its title, Breaking and Entering doesn’t crack these characters and doesn’t let us see inside them, nor are they allowed to see inside each other. What we see instead are surfaces that remain cold and distant. Will’s self-absorption can’t entirely subdue Law’s smooth charm, and in Binoche we see again an actress of remarkable technique (she speaks English, a foreign language to her, with a convincing Bosnian accent), but the actors have an appeal for us that the characters do not earn.