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A case study in crime

Even as "Children of Men," Alfonso Cuarón'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.

Expanding on this idea for the film, Minghella's ruminations led him into various pockets of research: the ethnic conflict in Bosnia, where he and Binoche traveled on a fact-finding junket; autism; architectural theory; the phenomenon of free-running, an urban sport involving leaping from rooftop to rooftop. As such, Will's quest becomes a not-so-veiled stand-in for the author's own, working backward from happenstance, rooting around in other people's lives, oblivious to the damage he creates and leaves behind.

The architectural firm owned by Will and his partner, played by Martin Freeman of the British version of "The Office," is called Green Effect, suggesting both simulated nature and Hollywood special effects (with the initials GE, which the director insists was purely accidental), and Minghella went as far as creating a Green Effect Manifesto, a marvel of deracinated arrogance, which is excerpted in the film. Eschewing the filigree of beautification — flowerbeds, lawns — Green Effect instead proposes an inland waterway, around which will be clustered new gentrified developments — the descendants of Dickens washed away as if by biblical flood.

"I think one of the themes of the piece is that we live in a world where things are thrown away when they're broken rather than fixed," says Law. "[Will is] a fallible guy who has to face up to mistakes — in himself and in the world around him. He's always trying to fix things, and fixing things on the surface requires fixing things inside."

And so language becomes not just an impediment but also a means of self-delusion. Bea, the gifted autistic daughter at the center of the family unit, is almost a poster child for the limits of communications — literal, humorless, with no feel for idiom — and yet she is their only means of conveying information to each other.

Will repeatedly explains the meaning of phrases like "fed up" or "cry your eyes out" that mystify her — his examples lost on her (and himself) but not on us. Bea compulsively steals the batteries from household appliances, even as everyone around her is running on empty; Liv (Wright Penn) spends hours a day in front of a light box.

Urban foxes that howl at night, Liv's exquisite sadness and the Scandinavian specter of suicide, architectural figurines that become toy soldiers in the hands of a teenage Bosnian asylum-seeker — this macramé of metaphor suggests nothing so much as a topographical map of the characters' inner landscape, even as it traps them in a web of abstraction and formalist rigor. "If you were measuring how far away — you and me — we are from where we need to be, is that a long way?" Will asks Liv in his one attempt at intimacy, the spatial conceit an almost painful tangle of convolution, one more scrim against reality.

"It reminds me of being on antibiotics," says Wright Penn of the dynamic. "Antibiotics suppress the symptoms, they don't actually cure anything. There are those moments when you're on antibiotics where you think, 'I feel so good!' and then about 20 minutes later, you're right back in the flu again. That's what these characters are doing — living in that suppression."

Minghella reiterates this pervasive use of figure of speech. "One of the games of this movie with myself is what Vera Farmiga's character says: 'Animals don't talk because they don't need to lie,' " says Minghella. "I am so conscious of the way that language is in service of obfuscation instead of communication."

"And that's a problem I have with movies, where language is solely employed so that characters can tell each other exactly what they mean and think and feel.... We can't even explain ourselves, much less the actions of others. And so, obviously, I feel some obligation that if you're going to muck around in the sandbox of feelings and relationships, not to lie about them."

For his trouble, Minghella received reviews in his native Britain that somehow attributed the class-specific crimes of the characters to the director, as if Will's well-intentioned brand of "inherent colonialism" somehow wasn't deliberate. Then many American critics, during the film's one-week academy qualifying run in December, pronounced the film "cool," "bloodless," "exploratory."

Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Co. both paid for "Breaking and Entering" and made the (apparently painful) decision not to mount one of his patented full-tilt Oscar campaigns on its behalf, seems mystified by its lack of traction. "... I love this film. We are baffled that the film hasn't been well received by many critics and didn't resonate with award voters."

Minghella too takes some exception to the reviews. "Allow me this conceit for one second," he says. "Bach is my obsession.... It's this thing that Casals said of him, which is: 'People say that Bach is technical, but he's a volcano.' It's this difference between surface and content; between the restraint and technique of surface taming this enormous emotion. I can be accused of anything you like and accept it, except that I'm cool. Because you couldn't find somebody less cool than me."

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