After being strapped down by a run of elegant, high-class literary adaptations—The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain—writer-director Anthony Minghella liberates himself in Breaking And Entering, his first wholly original screenplay since his piercing, minor-key debut feature Truly, Madly, Deeply. For the first two-thirds, Minghella allows a pair of fractious relationships—one between a landscape architect and his distant live-in girlfriend, the other between the same man and a Bosnian refugee—to ball up in a messy tangle of self-interest, mistrust, betrayal, and destructive passion. At its best, it feels like the sort of sophisticated and wonderfully particular character study that the French turn out by the dozens, but rarely gets made in the English language. But after all those pretty little brushstrokes, it becomes apparent that Minghella has painted himself into a corner and he's forced to make some crippling compromises to get himself out.
Ideally cast as a sensitive narcissist whose emotional depths are reserved mostly for himself, Jude Law plays a bourgeois architect whose company is spearheading an effort to gentrify the sketchy London neighborhood of Kings Cross. In the meantime, however, his office becomes easy pickings for local thieves, including a young Bosnian teenager (Rafi Gavron) whose parkour technique allows him to slip nimbly through the roof of Law's building. Driven away from home by his toxic relationship to girlfriend Robin Wright Penn, whose devotion to her autistic daughter is all-consuming, Law starts to stake out the office at night and finally catches the boy trying to sneak in for a third time. After following the young thief home, Law meets his mother, a hard-bitten seamstress played by Juliette Binoche, and the two embark on an affair burdened by secrets and compromise.
As the title implies, Minghella's film deals with the thieving of possessions and of the heart, and the severe repercussions that can result from the crime. In every case, the characters are driven toward self-preservation: Law goes to unsavory measures to ensure that his business and his lifestyle are not sabotaged by his relationship with Binoche and her son while Binoche has a mother's instinct for keeping the boy out of harm's way. In the process, they hurt each other badly, and Minghella is unsparing in his critique of Law's neediness and irresponsibility. He also loads the periphery with interesting local color, including a sharp-eyed look at a neighborhood that doesn't yield willingly to urban renewal and a memorably salty supporting performance by Vera Farmiga as an Eastern European hooker. But once it comes time to bring things to a close, Minghella finds himself with an unsympathetic hero and a mess of loose ends that need tidying. He cleans everything up, but the neater Breaking And Entering gets, the less pretty it becomes.