With only two writing credits to his name William Monahan has already established a type in his films. Like its predecessor, the narrative of London Boulevard begins with its protagonist’s expulsion from the penitentiary. Colin Farrell isn’t nearly as explosive as Billy Costigan, although he too has been to jail for violent tendencies. Like the tagline – the very trite “Not Every Criminal Wants to Be One” – suggests Mitchell isn’t devoted to the crime lifestyle. His friend Billy (a surprisingly in-form Ben Chaplin), part of an organisation of loan-sharks takes him under his wing and in a string of happenstance incidents Mitchell ends up on the wrong side of a gang war.
The biggest credit of London Boulevard is the hotchpotch of actors that decorate it. Monahan has an ear for dialogue, so when London Boulevard is at its best it gives supporting players like Anna Friel’s kooky sister, David Thewlis austere actor or Ben Chaplin’s officious boor a brilliant chance to submit some inspired performances but Monahan approaches the entire thing in such a bipolar manner at times that he seems unable to discern which story he wants to tell and the characters come off the worst for it, none more than Keira Knightley’s Charlotte. She is the reclusive young actor who Mitchell becomes a bodyguard for and it’s easily the most puzzling aspect of the film, already plagued with a number of question marks. In a more structured the reluctant chemistry between Farrell and Knightley might have been more successful, but despite the former’s striking sophistication and the latter’s fine attempts at suggesting deeper issues with her character Monahan’s doesn’t really allow the tenuous relationship the two share to go anywhere.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Monahan is at the root of the faults of London Boulevard – after all, he is the writer and director of the entire film. I’m loathe to make an excess of comparisons to The Departed, but I’ve got little else to go on when considering his technique and it occurs to me that whereas he was working on a well defined paradigm with the move from Infernal Affairs to The Departed he’s not as lucky with London Boulevard. He’s adapting a novel this time, and as good as he is with actual dialogue he doesn’t yet have a gift for distinguishing appropriate structure – it’s something that London Boulevard lacks terribly. It’s not so much that it’s wrought with plot-holes, as it is inorganic with the movement from subplot to subplot.
There’s the distinct sense of a better movie existing below the surface, and there’s also a stronger sense of the actors make vivid attempts at giving a better performance than the movie allows them to. London Boulevard is hardly a wasted effort, there’s a number of things to take from it – for example, Monahan does have talent, Anna Friel could make for a brilliant character actress, and Colin Farrell has the ability to command the screen even in less inspired fare. It’s not completely rewarding, but it’s worth the effort, if only to point out its flaws.