Film Review: London Fields

A film noir/futuristic fiction pastiche based on the critically acclaimed novel by Martin Amis, 'London Fields' simply does not work on any level.
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Set in a near-future in which everything has gone wrong and some kind of environmental catastrophe is turning the world into a picturesquely dystopian nightmare, blocked American writer Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton) has done an apartment swap with a successful English novelist. Samson definitely got the better end of the bargain, since his own place is a depressing dump and he’s now ensconced in a fabulous flat located in a glamorously rundown wreck, a real movie set-decorator’s fantasy of a building. The change of scenery might even be enough to start him writing again. In the meantime he narrates the tale—a writer writing the story in which he’s the hero... how very meta-fictional.
Samson’s new upstairs neighbor is dangerously beautiful dame Nicola Six—a replicant name if ever there was one—played by Amber Heard. She’s a psychic—a “precog” (a term popularized by Minority Report, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story)—who’s had a grim vision of her own murder. As fictional visions so often are, hers are both picturesquely specific and maddeningly vague. Nicola knows where and, more importantly, when she becomes “the murderee,” to use Amis/Samson’s twee terminology—she’s going to be killed on Guy Fawkes’ Day, which is also her 30th birthday. Afraid of losing her looks and ability to manipulate men, Nicola embraces the knowledge that she’s going to die young and stay pretty. But she doesn’t know who’s going to do the job, at least not exactly.
She does know it will be one of her two lovers: Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess) is a petty grifter who aspires to be a champion darts player and is deeply in hock to vicious villain Chick Purchase (Johnny Depp), or sharp-dressed Guy Clinch (Theo James), a thoroughly decent millionaire (now there’s a twist) trapped in a ridiculously awful marriage. Amis clearly had a jolly good time naming his characters. But of course, there’s also Samson himself. These writer types are a shifty lot, he’s obsessed with apocalyptic imagery, and he’s terminally ill so really, what does he have to lose? But to hear him tell it—as we do—Nicola gives purpose to his remaining days: The chronicle of her death foretold will make one hell of a story.
Onetime bad-boy of Brit-lit Martin Amis’ 1989 novel London Fields, whose plot is self-referential framework on which to hang the kind of scabrously clever writing that made him famous, is the sort of book everyone agrees is unfilmable and which therefore tempts creative, notoriously risk-taking filmmakers as different as David Cronenberg and Michael Winterbottom (both who whom were at one time attached to the project) to try and prove everyone wrong. Eventual director Matthew Cullen’s background lies in music video, and his London Fields looks as fabulous as Nicola herself, in a Blade Runner-esque future noir kind of way. But on screen it’s all a bit much: Too much meticulously contrived look, too many one-dimensional (some might say “archetypal,” but I’d be forced to disagree) characters, an excess of arch dialogue and, frankly, a too-heavy load of real-life backstory, including multiple lawsuits that delayed the film’s release.
Had London Fields simply made its way to theaters with its above-the-title cast and eye-catching visuals, it might have been able to stand or fall on its own merits. Instead, it’s preceded by a reputation that rivals that of the pre-release Heaven’s Gate and belies the old saw that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. That said, it’s also a muddled mess that doesn’t work convincingly on any level, not as satire or social commentary, not as speculative fiction or dystopian spectacle, not even as hypnotic trainwreck. It’s just a movie that doesn’t work, despite the presence of elements—source material, actors, behind-the-scenes talent like Pan’s Labyrinth cinematographer Guillermo Navarro—that would normally add up to a perfectly watchable film. But nothing goes right, from beginning to end: London Fields is both preposterous and dull, cluttered and hollow, neither entertaining nor thought provoking. All of which is both and shame and bodes ill for its theatrical prospects; look for a quick exit from theaters.