After the success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the unreliable narrator became all the rage in popular fiction, but Martin Amis had already been there and done that. Admittedly, his untrustworthy story-teller was a bloke rather than a “girl,” but the principal is the same. In this case, he also happened to be a failed novelist—an Amisian trope if ever there was one (see The Information). Long mired in legal and financial wrangling, Amis’s celebrated deceptive narrator finally gets a theatrical release, but he is not fooling anyone in Matthew Cullen’s London Fields (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Thus far, Samson Young’s literary career has been a miserable failure, but he picked the perfect time to visit London. Apocalyptic riots break out nightly across the city, but the lack of tourism meant the terminally ill writer could swing a flat exchange with pompous bestselling novelist Mark Asprey, swapping his crummy Hell’s Kitchen apartment for the tony London pad. As a further fringe benefit, Young discovers Asprey also has quite a beautiful neighbor in Nicola Six, who might just provide the inspiration for the page-turner he never had in him.
Young quickly learns Six has foretold the exact time of her death, which is fast approaching. However, she only knows she will be murdered—not by whom. For impishly perverse reasons, Six seems determined to help fate along, by stoking the lust and jealousy of the two leading suspects: flamboyant small-time hoodlum Keith Talent and petulantly entitled gentry-lad Guy Clinch. Young is convinced he can just record this real-life “novel” unfolding around him to finally score his bestseller.
The biggest problem with Roberta Hanley’s adapted screenplay is that we can immediately guess the big twist as soon as the film establishes all the main characters. Maybe it is all Gillian Flynn’s fault, but even if the troubled film had been released before Fincher’s Gone Girl, Cullen and Hanley simply do not incorporate enough misdirection to carry off the surprise. That is especially problematic, since they have stripped away most of the idiosyncrasy of Amis’s novel, opting to focus on the D.O.A.-ish noir plot-strand.
To give you an idea how long Fields has been held up, way back when it went into production, it was still considered a good idea to have Amber Heard and Johnny Depp in the same film. Depp is strangely uncredited, but that is probably for the best, considering his recent career setbacks. Frankly, he and Jim Sturgess are cringe-inducingly embarrassing as Talent and Chick Purchase, his pimped-out loan shark and professional darts nemesis. Admittedly, Heard is stuck with an underwritten character in Six, but at least she makes a credibly smoldering femme fatale. Theo James fares somewhat better than Sturgess as the shallow and easily manipulated Clinch, even though he is rather bland and forgettable.
In contrast, Billy Bob Thornton is unusually restrained as Young, but he still manages to chew a good bit of scenery. Frankly, Jason Isaacs largely steals the show, which is kind of sad, because most of his work as Asprey comes via voice messages to Young, sort of like the opening answering machine gag that always launched the Rockford Files credits.
To give credit where it is due, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro makes all look fabulously noir and stylish. The electronic score credited to Toydrum, Benson Taylor, and Adam Barber is also percussively propulsive, sounding quite appealingly influenced by Birdman and earlier crime jazz. Unfortunately, any viewer with any pop culture savvy will be way ahead of this film, which gives them plenty of time to lose patience with the shtickiness of Depp and Sturgess. It is not nearly as hideous as it is cracked up to be, but London Fields still isn’t recommended when it opens today (10/26) in New York, at the AMC Empire.