Even as "Children of Men," Alfonso Cuaron's future fairy tale of humanity teetering on a precipice, proves that cautionary tales of dystopia and its corrective design do not require a science fiction setting, along comes "Breaking and Entering," a new film by Anthony Minghella that reopens in theaters today, as the latest case in point.
The film stars Jude Law as a landscape architect and urban planner whose inherent liberal optimism and municipal hubris leads him to set up shop in the King's Cross section of North London, where the massive Eurotunnel terminus will soon displace the disenfranchised immigrants, cheeky hookers and feral crime gangs who quickly have him pegged as the human equivalent of veal.
As police inspector Ray Winstone, investigating the latest break-in at the new office and marveling at a scale model of the neighborhood's impending makeover, notes in his Eastender's drawl: "That's you there, you've got the British Library over there, there's Eurotunnel, and bang in the middle you've got crack village with a lot of Somalians walking about with machetes. It's an area in flux."
Saddled with an icy Nordic beauty (Robin Wright Penn) and her autistic daughter, whose capacious needs and incapacity for sleep turn their lives into a private Land of the Midnight Sun, Law's Will pursues the teenage break-in artist back to his Bosnian mother (a luminous Juliette Binoche), a seamstress living amid the Serbian relatives of her dead husband. An inveterate problem-solver, armed with the sort of simplistic optimism of Western privilege much on display in the geopolitical adventurism in the world today, Will insinuates himself into these foreigners' affairs and tries to fix their apparent problems, with a predictably disastrous outcome. The result is a disquisition on cultural Pangaea and the limits of communication as pointed as anything in "Babel," but confined to a 10-block area.
"Conciliation, and the idea of bringing criminal and victim into a kind of exchange, is one of the things that movies or dramatic fiction invite all the time, which is the requirement to visit an issue from both sides," says Minghella. "That Shavian notion of the moral gymnasium: You're allowed within the course of a film to travel around a problem or event and examine it from a multifaceted perspective, in a way that life never allows you. That kept resonating with me as I was working ... the virtue of conciliation, and the urgency of it -- and how that can extend into the nature of a relationship, either a formal marriage or a partnership, or the idea of a city reconciling itself with its past and future."
"Breaking and Entering" marks a return for Minghella to what Law calls "his own voice again for the first time in about 10 years." The son of Italian immigrants (his father was an ice cream seller on the Isle of Wight), Minghella studied and subsequently taught playwriting at the University of Hull, where he developed a taste for Beckett, tried his hand at Restoration comedy and made it to the West End with "Made in Bangkok," a dark, nasty farce about the Thai sex trade and Englishmen abroad. This led to a decade spent writing for British television and in 1991 to his first film, "Truly, Madly, Deeply," a supernatural love story leavened with ample humor.
All of this was brushed aside in the operatic sweep of 1996's "The English Patient," adapted from a novel by Michael Ondaatje, which garnered nine Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. ("I'm happy to have pieces where the volume control of feeling is turned up loud," Minghella says of that film's success.) This was followed by more literary adaptations: "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the Civil War epic "Cold Mountain." (In between, he filmed Samuel Beckett's "Play.")
It was while mounting an actual opera -- Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" at the Met, staged in conjunction with his wife, Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa -- that the morning-after congratulatory phone call he was anticipating for the premiere's success turned out to be his office in London, housed in an industrial section of North London, informing him of a series of break-ins. A line from the film, delivered in a singular comic turn by Vera Farmiga as a Serbian prostitute -- "Bad place for business" -- was, in fact, first delivered by the director's son, actor Max Minghella, which similarly deflated Minghella's own civic aspirations and deluded colonialism.
The incident soon inhabited the remnants of an abandoned play called "Breaking and Entering" from the author's brief tenure on the stage, an absurdist notion of a thief who penetrates a couple's apartment and adds to rather than subtracts from their possessions.