This film is instantly recognizable as an Anthony Minghella film in one respect -- it centers on characters who are pathologically determined to sweep something under the carpet, even if they have to stomp up and down on that 'something' to keep it under there. Like his brilliant Hitchcock-opera, The Talented Mr. Ripley, which never used the word 'gay,' no matter how many bodies stacked up like cordwood at the expense of Ripley's psychotic self-denial, Breaking and Entering centers on an up-market London couple -- the wife is so up-market she's 'half-Swedish' -- who also suffer greatly for having no 'word' that sheds light on their dilemma. Robin Wright Penn and Jude Law play the possibly un-proud parents of a high-functioning autistic child who is aggressively weird, excels at a flip-heavy style of gymnastics and knows that she will never, under any circumstances, be disciplined by her happening liberal parents, even when she throws things. They are resigned to just sit and age at an accelerated rate while she backflips across the kitchen table.
The impossible situation at home leads Jude Law's character to grab at a hobby when one is dangled in front of him. As a city planner, he has boldly moved his family to King's Cross, an urban location that passes for 'inner city' in London. He plans to sweep it into the 21st century with an expensive-looking urban renewal plan. Soon, his office becomes the repeated target of a gang of professional burglars who take everything not nailed down, right down to his little toy-soldier men on special order from Japan, that he uses as stand-ins for people in his scale model of the future, burglar-free King's Cross. Unable to accept the irony, Jude begins an amateur stakeout routine, waiting around outside his office at night in an SUV for the thieves to materialize, so he can accost them. It's somewhere around this point that the screenplay begins to drag the characters into directions they would never go, and towards people they would never interact with, so they can ultimately make decisions they would never make.
Minghella's fantasy version of King's Cross is one where prostitutes who look exactly like Vera Farmiga hang around on street corners and will keep you company while you're on stake-out, offering sage advice and street wisdom. It's also one where the burglar you decide to pursue and track down to the source of his criminal empire ends up being a scared, sweet little teenage boy with an attractive mother, played by Juliette Binoche. There's nothing technically wrong with the performance Binoche gives as the Bosnian immigrant seamstress who lives to provide for and protect her wayward son at all costs, but the casting remains more than a mild curiosity. Did Minghella simply want to cast someone he had worked with before, or was he turned on by the challenge of handing the part of a rather hard, beaten-down mother figure to the normally waif-like Binoche? That every main character Jude Law eventually interacts with turns out to be a person just trying to get by in the world, also seems odd; is Minghella saying burglars are misunderstood?
Despite the obviously limited budget on which the film was shot, Minghella's natural grace with a camera gives Breaking and Entering the fluid, weightless style of a film with five times the money to burn. It's a saving grace, given the fact that there are so many frustrating plotwise elements to this film, which was originally scheduled to open last October and has been kicked down the road ever since. Minghella is a slave to cinematic beauty, and frames every shot with the same painterly, compositional eye that we remember from The English Patient -- the last Best Picture winner that was actually the best picture of that year. Even though his King's Cross is more like someone's fondly remembered dream than any real urban nightmare scenario -- even the burglars have style, perfecting a technique known as 'free-running' that allows them to quickly hop in and out of a flat like Spidermen -- we are so drawn in by Minghella's forceful shot compositions that we can't help but give him the benefit of the doubt and reserve our judgment until long after the final reel.
Still, the final judgment is that in the battle between his pen and his camera, Minghella's camera should win every time. The script for Breaking and Entering is literate, intelligent and occasionally quite interesting, but it feels labored and the story is improbable at best. Even when it works, it works like a juggler successfully spinning seven or eight plates in the air. The third act in particular feels tinkered with to the point of being very noticeable and off-putting, and there's very little resolution to many of the themes set up early on, especially where the child is concerned. None of these nitpicky feelings entered my mind with The English Patient or The Talented Mr. Ripley, where Minghella had the freedom and budget he needed to do some of the best large-screen work since the master George Stevens was making his classics. On behalf of all audience members who sat through Cold Mountain, I officially forgive Minghella for that misstep and invite him to return to making the epics that he excels at. Here's $200 million -- now get to work!