Part of our coverage of the 29th Starz Denver International Film Festival
Rarely does a film take full advantage of the medium to explore thematic depth. Talking heads, filmed conversations, pratfalls, or fiery explosions: these are the sorts of one-dimensional things film is most often used for.
Minghella, though, is a master at texture and depth. Witness The English Patient, which married landscape, flesh, and memory.
He does almost the same thing in Breaking & Entering, but with an urban landscape instead of a desert.
R for sexuality, language, nudity
King’s Cross is (apparently) a blighted area of London, and Will (Jude Law) is an architect who has won a contract to redevelop it.
It’s not important to the plot, but in snippets we learn that Will’s architectural plan acknowledges that cities are man-made. Squeezing in grassy areas is hypocrisy; it lets us mistake “green” for nature. His plan embraces the man-made-ness of a city, a philosophy of architecture that I find intriguing, if potentially cold.
For all the right reasons, Will and his partner (Martin Freeman) decide to move their office into King’s Cross, even before construction, against the advice of well-meaning friends who say that the area is still too dangerous. Sure enough, burglars break into their office twice within the first few minutes of screen time.
Superficially, the story is about Will playing cat-and-mouse with a young thief (Rafi Gavron) who participated in the break-ins. Emotionally, the story is about overcoming temptation. Will is tempted by many things, and he usually gives in. Thematically, the film is a tapestry of ideas about architecture, class, crime, poverty, prejudice, and responsibility, to name a half dozen.
Sympathy for Devils
Part of me disliked Breaking & Entering, largely because Will can sometimes be reprehensible. In the first half, he is the poster-boy for fuzzy-headed, soft-on-crime liberalism. Without knowing any of the facts, he prejudicially has sympathy for the thieves of King’s Cross who steal from him.
Actually, I think his sympathy is decent and noble, but that’s mostly because Minghella is pulling our heartstrings. He shows us a sympathetic thief, a 15-year-old boy whose life got off to a rough start and who would be an architect himself if only he had the opportunity. What we don’t see in as much detail are the other half-dozen thieves in the ring who are little more than criminals. And since Will doesn’t have the spine to assertively take a position on poverty and crime, it’s pure luck that his sympathy (and ours) happens to fall on a deserving target.
In the second half of the film, Will makes a lot of stupid decisions. By the end of the film, the moral course is clear, but Will can’t see it, and it makes him look like a child. Maybe his late understanding is supposed to be a dramatic trick to heighten the tension of the ending, but instead of tension, you might just feel frustration.
But in the end I actually liked Breaking & Entering more than I disliked it. And what I liked about it was its texture. Movies offer a huge opportunity for thematic depth, and rarely does a film take full advantage. Complex ideas about architecture, justice, home, opportunity, and class find fertile ground in Breaking & Entering.
Themes are repeated and riffed on, and each juxtaposition offers a new way to think about the same issue. For example, Will’s family, while very different from the thief and his mother, is also strikingly similar in many details. Both families have lost loved ones in foreign countries, both have teenaged children with grace and talent — and troubles. The architectural idea of not trapping nature in man-made spaces is flipped when an urban fox trapped in Will’s courtyard yowls at night, keeping him awake.
The divide between white-collar, middle-class Londoners and blue-collar “denizens” is the elephant in the living room. The characters are afraid to address it — even when Will’s partner gets a crush on one of the cleaners, he can’t bring himself to acknowledge the class difference verbally. There is one character, a police officer, who gets to point out the obvious: if one of the architects breaks the law, they hire a good lawyer, whereas the 15-year-old thief will go to jail without passing Go.
Editing helps draw distinctions when the characters won’t. The first two shots of the film are of different sides of that economic divide. Architects direct construction workers in one shot, and then we cut to a kid washing someone else’s windshield.
Filming about Architecture
Finally, I liked Breaking & Entering because Minghella ponders man’s connection to the landscape again, as he did in The English Patient. With a city planner for a brother, I find myself thinking about space and architecture more than I have any right to. This film raises many of those issues I find fascinating, as well as some that I haven’t thought about before.
Consider that our protagonist is an architect, and the thief aspires to be one (his father builds bridges back in the old country, or so his mother tells us). Although the boy hasn’t had an architectural education, he is very aware of his environment. His hobby is parkour (a purely urban martial art involving running around, over, under, or through obstacles), and he embraces the urbanness of the city.
In short, there is enough to ponder in Breaking & Entering that no matter how annoying or frustrating I might have found Will to be, I still would have liked the film for its texture.