'Breaking and Entering': Domestic Disturbance

Creating a fully realized character with a few judicious brush strokes: Robin Wright Penn.
Creating a fully realized character with a few judicious brush strokes: Robin Wright Penn. (By Laurie Sparham -- The Weinstein Co.)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

On top of such recent British cinematic delicacies as "The Queen" and "Notes on a Scandal" comes "Breaking and Entering," another slice of contemporary London life that, despite occasional lapses into over-determined contrivance and earnestness, is still shot through with an astute sense of its own place and time.

The first film that Anthony Minghella has directed from his own script since the bittersweet 1991 "Truly Madly Deeply," this similarly melancholy romance reminds filmgoers that when Minghella isn't orchestrating overwrought literary adaptations ("The English Patient," "Cold Mountain"), he possesses an unusually acute ear, an alert eye and a gratifying willingness to tell stories about and to grown-ups.

Jude Law plays a landscape architect named Will Francis, who's setting up shop in the once rough, now rapidly gentrifying district of King's Cross. Will and his associate Sandy (Martin Freeman, of the British version of "The Office") are idealists, seeking to heal the world through environmentally sensitive water features and contributing to the economic development of a neglected urban core. Imagine their chagrin when their posh loft office is repeatedly broken into, and their computer equipment stolen, apparently by local ruffians. You can see it in their injured, well-meaning eyes: Don't they know we're liberals?

While Will navigates the world of petty crime at the office, he must weather tough sailing at home, where he and his longtime girlfriend, Liv (Robin Wright Penn), are living at an emotional distance, trying to figure out how best to help her troubled daughter, whose obsessive behavior (nonstop exercise, no sleep, countless tics and phobias) sends them into couples therapy. When Will happens to cross paths with a beautiful Bosnian seamstress named Amira (Juliette Binoche), the disparate compartments of his life collide in unexpected and potentially explosive ways.

There are two ways to consider "Breaking and Entering." One is to concentrate on its flaws; the "Babel"-like whoppers of coincidence and symmetry, the overripe language, the overplayed tropes and symbols. It's all very moody and self-righteous, much like Will himself as he agonizes over the ethical implications of his very being as a privileged white guy -- who is beginning to gravitate toward the state of nature he's spent a career domesticating.

But "Breaking and Entering" still gets a lot right. Minghella films London, and particularly the King's Cross neighborhood, almost as a character in itself, and as such it comes alive with vivid, authentic force. With its shabby brickwork and ever-present cranes, it has the feeling of being caught on the fly, almost in the midst of being rebuilt. The director captures the film's two domestic worlds -- Will and Liv's sleepy, Zenlike townhouse, Amira's cramped working-class flat -- with a similar sense of detail and comprehension; you get the sense that he's so familiar with these worlds that he's hasn't created them so much as simply opened a door on them so filmgoers can have a peek.

The visual details are matched by an unerring ear for the rhythms and idiosyncrasies of spoken language; one of the most utterly right moments in "Breaking and Entering" is a throwaway line when Liv playfully asks Will for permission to start a sentence with "Rosemary says," in reference to their shrink. If audiences may not completely buy a cleaning woman who quotes Kafka, or a whore with a gift for metaphor (played with bawdy brio by Vera Farmiga), the sheer pleasure of those words duly rewards the suspension of disbelief. (Between "The Queen," "Notes on a Scandal" and this, it's increasingly looking as if the Brits are the only screenwriters left who let their characters speak in paragraphs.

If its attractive looks and literate, sophisticated bent aren't enough, "Breaking and Entering" also features some fabulous, finely honed performances, especially from Binoche -- whose radiance here recalls those unforgettable turns in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and Krzystof Kieslowski's "Red," "White" and "Blue" trilogy.

And then there's Penn, who of any actress working today can do the most with the least screen time. Mastering Liv's Swedish American accent with Streepian precision, not to mention her maternal and sexual anxieties, Penn once again creates a fully realized character with just a few judicious brush strokes. (A wordless, penetrating gaze toward the end of the film is an emotional tour de force, reminiscent of her breathtaking work in the 2005 film "Nine Lives.")

Although Binoche and Penn are the standouts, Law acquits himself just as well as a man who, as he wriggles through various moral keyholes, may not always behave well but still sustains sympathy. Having come late to the Jude Law Fan Club, I'll admit that I finally get it: He's a charmer.

There are so many more things to like about "Breaking and Entering": the understated musical score by the great Gabriel Yared; the cheeky comic delivery of Freeman; the subtlety with which Minghella conveys post-globalization Britain; the tensions and felicities that break and enter through those newly porous borders. "Breaking and Entering" will probably tiptoe out of theaters as quietly as it's arrived, but I have a feeling its afterlife will stand it in good stead, as a vivid portrait of what it was like to be alive, right now.

Breaking and Entering (119 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for profanity and sexuality.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company