A polished but flawed 'Breaking'

Times Staff Writer

Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme's camera loves London, it's crazy about Jude Law and Robin Wright Penn and Juliette Binoche, and it adores all the beautiful interiors and muscular construction sites and stately Range Rovers of director Anthony Minghella's "Breaking and Entering." Which helps explain why you can come away in thrall to all the dewy skin, creamy cashmere, clever dialogue, recurring leitmotifs, new-car smell and top-shelf intentions and still feel like a jerk for more or less enjoying yourself. It looks great, but it feels funny.

Despite very good performances and solid construction, it's a slightly too symmetrical, way too tendentious side-by-side comparison of two families -- Haves, meet the Have-nots -- who come into unlikely contact in the fitfully gentrifying area of Kings Cross. Here in the bad-but-"edgy" parts of town, the movie imagines, adolescent Bosnian cat burglars linger over art books mid-theft, Nigerian cleaning women indignantly quote Kafka after being wrongly accused of crimes, and wry prostitutes toss around philosophical apercus about the human condition.

It's not that you doubt Erika (Caroline Chikezie), the cleaner, has read Kafka -- it's that you doubt "Kafka" is the first word out of her mouth when confronting Sandy (Martin Freeman), the creepy, lovelorn boss she initially thinks has sicced the police on her. The film is so dead-set on proving that the poor and disenfranchised are human, too, it doesn't let them be human much.

Luckily, the police understand how the system works. There's a valuable lesson the less fortunate can teach the fortunate -- something about the relative fragility of the rights and privileges a lot of people take for granted. When the more fortunate don't get it, the cops are there to spell it out: "There's one law for them and one law for us," detective Bruno Fella (Ray Winstone) tells Will (Law) and Sandy, whose landscape architecture firm has been repeatedly broken into since they moved to the area. The real culprit turns out to be a Bosnian crime ring that relies on the feline skills of a 15-year-old gymnast named Miro (Rafi Gavron). Miro is a half-Bosnian, half-Muslim Serbian refugee whose widowed mother Amira (Binoche) fled Sarajevo during the war. Amira works as a seamstress and tries to keep Miro in school, but school is a prison-like place where he's hounded by cockney bullies.

Meanwhile, the Wills and Sandys of the world feel just terrible about their sexual attraction to oppressed peoples but soldier on nonetheless. Can you blame them? Will lives in a snow white house in Kensington with (of all chilly combinations) a blond, Chicago-educated Swedish-American named Liv (Wright Penn) and her autistic, obsessive-compulsive daughter Bea (Poppy Rogers). Liv is so chronically, Swedishly depressed, she hovers over her phototherapy light box like a monk over his text.

After catching Miro breaking into his office, Will follows him home and soon embarks on a love affair with Amira. The notion of this rich, handsome English architect falling head-over-heels for a refugee seamstress, even if she is played by Binoche, is a stretch. But then, she's just a symbol for what he's missing. Amira also makes do with approximations of the real thing; she has a practice keyboard instead of a piano, in the way Liv has a light box instead of the sun.

Minghella raises some interesting questions on the subject of exile -- whether from one's country, family, ethnic identity or self. (As the most assimilated of the immigrants, coming from the most complex ethnic identity -- his parents are a Muslim and a Bosnian Serb -- young Miro comes to symbolize the new face of Britain just as he begins to recognize his Balkan past.) But his conclusions feel pious and pat.


MPAA rating: R for sexuality and language. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Monica Fourplex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741. Reopens in limited release Jan. 26.

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