Breaking and Entering (review)

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Can’t Feel a Thing

Look, you need some patience for yuppie angst with this one. And some patience for slow-burn melodrama. And some patience for slow-burn melodrama that never quite ignites, actually. But if you can deal with all of that… well, you still may be disappointed in Breaking and Entering, the new slow-burn yuppie-angst melodrama from Anthony Minghella, who gave us exquisite The English Patient and the devastating Truly Mady Deeply but hasn’t given us anything we can really sink our cinematic teeth into since The Talented Mr. Ripley.
This is a smart, elegant, sophisticated film that should be everything I want to see in a movie and yet fails to be because it’s missing that one enigmatic element, the hardest to capture, the most unfakeable: spirit. A movie can get away with a lot of ridiculous nonsense if it’s got that indefinable soul that makes a movie come alive, but no amount of intellectual puzzle-making — great actors, tidy script, beautiful direction — can hide a lack of that movie magic. Like Minghella’s previous film, 2003’s Cold Mountain, the pieces are all here, but they can’t adhere without the fire of genuine heart and chutzpah to make us care about those pieces. And I tried. I desperately want to be able to care about this movie, and I can’t, not even after a long search to find something to cling to.

Sparks flare, here and there, as in the one really memorable moment that sticks in my mind: Jude Law’s (The Holiday, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) London architect, Will, is driving home to his family, and as he approaches the house, he can see through a window that his wife, Liv (Robin Wright Penn: Sorry, Haters, Nine Lives), is battling their daughter, Bea (Poppy Rogers: Nicholas Nickleby, From Hell), again. The pubescent girl is a handful, if not mildly autistic then at least more than ordinarily combative, obsessive, and withdrawn than most kids of her age. Living with her is a trial, and it’s put a strain on Will and Liv’s marriage, and he can’t deal with it anymore. And so he drives off again. And there are worlds of pain and frustration and anger in his need to escape that tear at you in a way similar to how they tear at Will: you want to despise him for being a coward, for avoiding reality and leaving his wife to deal with the biggest mess in their lives, but you can’t.

But moments like that one are few here. The story of Will’s rocky marriage bumps up against another involving a series of break-ins at Will’s architectural firm in the rough London neighborhood that his company is planning to revitalize and gentrify. Will discovers who one of the thieves is — immigrant teenager Miro (Rafi Gavron) — and, through plot machinations too complicated to go into, ends up getting romantically involved with the boy’s mother, Amira (Juliette Binoche: Chocolat, The English Patient). Which leads to all sorts of lies and deceptions and cruelties all around… not just on Will’s part. This is no tale of how men are mean to women — it’s a tale of how everyone is mean to everyone.

So I could even hate this movie, theoretically, if I can’t love it. These are terrible people who do terrible things to one another, and maybe I should even hate the terrible ending that wraps everything up so neatly that it is not to be believed. But I can’t hate Breaking and Entering, either. Because even as it’s carefully delineating the complex web of social interactions that make up a marriage and an affair and the mother-child bond, it never really seems to understand the emotions that make the web a web. It never gets angry or happy or bitter or joyous itself about any of these things. And so it never inspires any emotion in the viewer but sheer indifference.

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