Breaking in the Film Festival

An air of anticipation hung over opening night at the 29th annual Denver Film Festival, which got under way on Thursday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. Plenty of happy socialites were in attendance, clad in the sort of costumes that are seemingly de rigueur at such events; women favored ankle-length dresses worth more than a decent used car, while several men opted for pretentious white silk scarves as useful during a cold snap as a tray of ice cubes. Meanwhile, over at the red carpet, Mayor John Hickenlooper held court before reporters and photogs, clearly thrilled to be answering questions about something other than computer crashes at voting centers.

Inside the Ellie, Hickenlooper introduced Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella (pictured), who'd been chosen to receive this year's Mayor's Career Achievement Award, and Hick's speech overflowed with more than the typical amount of hyperbole. He praised Minghella for making seven terrific films, when in fact he's only helmed six (the director subsequently said he hoped that mysterious extra flick "was a good one"), and listed Jude Law among those Minghella had directed to an Oscar even though the twice-nominated actor has yet to win a statuette.

Minghella's response to these compliments was charmingly self-effacing, and so were his remarks about Breaking and Entering, his latest effort, and the evening's cinematic centerpiece. After joking that he would rather be screening Borat for the attendees, he called Breaking, which stars Law, Juliette Binoche and Robin Wright Penn, an odd film to begin a festival, and after hinting that the flick hadn't come out quite the way he'd envisioned, he pleaded with the audience for patience.

Turns out these words weren't an example of false modesty.

Breaking and Entering revolves around a workaholic London architect (Law). His marriage to the character portrayed by Penn has grown chillier with the passage of time thanks in part to his wife's mood swings and devotion to her daughter from an earlier relationship, who exhibits symptoms of autism that manifest themselves in obsessive gymnastics routines and insomnia. After his offices are robbed on two occasions, the architect stakes out the building and eventually discovers the identity of one of the thieves; he's the 15-year-old son of a Yugoslav immigrant (Binoche). To the surprise of no one who's ever rented a video, the architect and the immigrant become romantically involved even as police search for the boy. The plot is resolved amid a storm of melodrama, contrivance and guilt.

In his talk prior to the screening, Minghella said his film dealt with the collision of class (and presumably, people of differing ethnicity and faith) in modern London. But Breaking only offers tentative gestures toward such themes via a couple of minor characters (a black cleaning woman and a stereotypical Eastern European prostitute) whose storylines are jettisoned early on and aren't resolved in a satisfactory manner. Likewise, the autistic daughter comes across more as a literary device -- a complication -- than a believable creation. That leaves the central triangle of Law and Penn, stuck in a monochromatically dour mode, and Binoche, doing the famous-actress-speaks-in-showy-accent thang that even Meryl Streep has abandoned. Had Minghella established an emotional connection between Law and Penn (and, by extension, the audience), this narrative thread might have held the rest of the action together. But it snaps early on, stranding viewers in a dreary tone poem that limps to a tepid conclusion.

The applause afterward was muted, and so were the comments of the socialites in the crowd -- at least until they neared the site of the after-party. The movie may have been a disappointment, but the opportunity to show off their toniest outfits was anything but. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts