Movie Review: ‘London Fields’

Review by James Lindorf

Opening October 26th is London Fields, the Mathew Cullen (Pacific Rim) directed film based on the Martin Amis novel of the same name. The story is set in an alternate 1999 London during an unexplained event, only referred to as “The Crisis.” Billy Bob Thornton plays Samson Young, an American author with writer’s block in search of inspiration. He finds not one, but three muses in ne’er-do-well Keith (Jim Sturgess, 21), bored millionaire Guy (Theo James, Divergent) and the mysterious Nicola Six, (Amber Heard, Aquaman). Guy Fawkes Day, where everyone is asked to “remember, remember the 5th of November” is coming up; not only is it a chance to remember the nearly 400-year-old act of rebellion, but it is also Nicola’s 30th birthday, her last birthday, the night she plans to die. The clairvoyant femme fatale knows when and how, she just doesn’t know which of the three men who recently entered her life will be responsible.

Cullen was joined by writer Roberta Hanley (The Virgin Suicides), cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth), and production designer Jeremy Reed (Factory Girl) to adapt Amis’ novel into a surreal, noir, crime thriller. There may not be any fields in London, but the casting team managed to field an impressive group of actors. The star-studded cast includes Billy Bob Thornton, Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Theo James, and Jim Sturgess, as well as Cara Delevingne, Gemma Chan, Jaimie Alexander and Jason Isaacs in supporting roles.

This was a difficult movie for me to review. The problem arises from the fact that I enjoy the characters in this world, but I am not a fan of the story being told. This is not because there is nothing redeemable in the story, but because it feels like a first or second draft, and not a finished piece of art. Much like a world-class sculptor can look at a stone and see the piece within, one can look at this movie and see the makings of a great film. Unfortunately, the team, as constructed, lacked any or all of the skill, budget or time necessary to make their masterpiece.

Billy Bob starts off strong, when he isn’t reading Amis’ prose as narration. Samson is an odd but likable man struggling with writer’s block and an unknown illness. As Sam’s health deteriorates so does Thornton’s performance, breaking down into stilted dialogue and blank stares. For overall performance in London Fields, the award goes to Jim Sturgess who is unrecognizable from his role as Ben, the card-counting M.I.T. student in 21. The heavy lifting, acting-wise, fell on the shoulders of Amber Heard. While she only played one named character, she had to give three distinct performances, based on who was in the scene with her.
Nicola is at her most real and vulnerable when she is with Samson, a domineering sexpot for Keith and the virginal damsel in distress for Guy. I think she was able to pull off the character she played for Guy better than the rest, but the moments that really made her shine were when she had to deal with two of the men in a short period of time. The way Nicola’s personality would change with the flip of a switch was fun to see.

Unfortunately, while Nicola is playing three sides, she still manages to be one dimensional. Guy is looking for excitement in his life, but we don’t know why he is unhappy. Keith, while being the character we know the most about, is the most nonsensical. He is married with a young daughter, drives a taxi, runs around all hours of the night, and takes money from multiple loan sharks to fuel his drinking and gambling. For some reason he is also a competitive darts player.

Looking at Nicola is like looking at a mosaic: dozens of little images of her combining to make one larger image of who she really is. Unfortunately, some of the pictures are missing, and others are too blurry for us to get a larger sense of who she really is. We know she wants to die because she is choosing not to avoid it, but the why is never explained. The only possible explanation provided is that, because of her ability to know when and how people will die, she can never truly experience love, and that may be something she would rather not live without.

How much you enjoy this movie will depend on how much you appreciate the characters, and I had fun watching the crazy people rushing to the predetermined ending. While I enjoyed the company, the lack of a satisfying conclusion makes London Fields a trip I don’t plan on taking a second time, no matter how pretty the drive was. This not a film for anyone who demands a tightly woven script because that is not what you will find here. There is entertainment to be had, but I don’t know if the book is of poor quality or if the adaptation cut out too much character development and motivation. This leaves London Fields with very much style over substance. It’s a style some people will enjoy, but it will not be enough for the majority of moviegoers.

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