On paper, London Boulevard looks like it has the potential to deliver great things. Director William Monahan (making his debut behind the camera) penned the scripts for such reassuringly pulpy features like The Departed and Body of Lies. Long-time Scorsese producer Graham King is also on board, and the film offers an embarrassment of riches in terms of the sheer volume of talented and respected UK performers, all of whom must have been drawn to the material under the pretence that they were appearing in a film which would result in a big hit. Sadly that trace of quality which permeates though the cast and crew is missing entirely from the finished result.
For starters, it manages to completely waste the talents of its fantastic cast. Farrell’s performance is completely handicapped as his struggles with a South London accent, and strangely, actually sounds like an actor who has come from over the pond to play an Englishman. Completely straight-jacketed by this, he gives a one-note performance. Comparing Farrell here to his incredibly funny and endearing role in the recent In Bruges, and it’s almost like there are two different actors at work under the same person.
Chapman (long AWOL from cinema screens) plays the country’s least threatening debt collector, and Knightley (second-billed, but with a total screen time that amounts to around 15 minutes at the most) is given very little to do, and sits around looking pensive and sad, presumably due to her self-imposed hermitic lifestyle. She has zero chemistry with Farrell, although the script’s shortcomings are probably the main cause of this. Their relationship suffers from the Anakin Skywalker/Padmé curse in that by placing the characters together in a solitary environment where they share a private scene or two together, we’re suddenly asked to believe that love has blossomed between them. Even usually study supporting actors Stephen Graham and Eddie Marsden are given nothing to do, and end up as shamefully wasted window dressing alongside the other names. Only David Thewlis, playing Knightley’s campy, ex-thesp protector (whose looks appear to have been modeled on the good lord himself) seems to be aware of the ridiculousness of it all, and is the only one having any fun here.
Just as fellow yank Woody Allen failed to paint a realistic portrayal of the London upper class in his England-set films, Monahan has no feel for the sensibilities and milieu of the UK’s criminal underworld. From the very start, scenes never really come to life, and his grip on pacing and character continuity is widely off the mark too. The film is a muddled mess, and given that it’s been adapted by an Oscar-winning scriptwriter, the dialogue is often confusing and delivered in a weirdly off-key way.
The film is also crammed with loads of (mostly) British rocks song, inspired by, or hailing from the swinging sixties – a time and era the film tries desperately to evoke the spirit of. Unfortunately, their inclusion only helps to illustrate how off the mark London Boulevard is. Having Farrell drive around the streets of Lambeth in a classic motor, while the likes of The Yardbirds are playing on the soundtrack, is clearly not enough to create the impression of a fun and reverential homage.
Given the mockney posturing on display, this is the type of film which would usually find a welcoming home on the small screen at least (there are a number of scenes when you half expecting DTV king Danny Dyer to stick his head round the corner and holler “what’s goin’ on, you caaaants?”). However, where those Brit gangster films made almost exclusively for the DVD market usually have an inherent awfulness to them which can sometimes translate to a evening of guilty pleasure viewing, London Boulevard’s far-reaching idea that it’s some kind of grandiose crime yarn (complete with the now clichéd ironically-tragic ending) puts to bed any notion of even a remotely entertaining time, and instead offers 90-plus head-scratching minutes which amount to a criminally boring viewing experience. Avoid.