The history of movies is littered with absolutely god-awful adaptations of great novels — and whether you consider Martin Amis’s 1990 book London Fields a “great novel” or simple one of the author’s stronger works is a matter to be settled between you and your respective deity. But the lauded British author’s tale of a world torn asunder, a woman who knows the details of her grisly future death and a writer mining it all for material was, if nothing else, a compelling read — all literary bad-boy swagger (U.K. division) and whistling past the premillennial-tension graveyard. A man might pore through its pages, peruse the descriptive sentences of doomed females, toxic males, murder, class warfare and darts, and think there was the basis for something incredibly cinematic lurking between the lines. A man might very well be wrong.
We can idly wonder what would have happened if David Cronenberg had gone through with his proposed take on the book back in the early aughts, or if Hell or High Water‘s David Mackenzie had his crack at it, or if some of the other directors attached to it over the years were able to bring their vision to the screen. Such daydreaming would be preferable to enduring what did end up slouching into theaters after numerous delays and Voodoo curses — a sort of lads-mag take on 20th-century nihilism chic that reduces the novelist’s black satire into a clammy, panting Amis-and-randy mishigas. The images are in focus (mostly), so it earns half a star. Who says charity is an outdated concept?
Meet Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton), an American pulp writer who’s swapped his Hell’s Kitchen apartment for the London flat of a highly successful lit-celeb named Mark Asprey. (Why would an author give himself one unflattering avatar when he could gift himself with two?) He’s arrived in an Old Blighty roiled with riots and urban strife, in addition to being stocked with clichéd caricatures that read broad on the page and have been upgraded to atom-bomb subtle here. On the Cockney punter side: Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), pub Lothario and would-be darts champion. On the posh upper-cruster side: Guy Clinch (Divergent‘s Theo James), rich banker and emasculated wanker. The person connecting all of them is Nicola Six (Amber Heard), a young woman who knows that one of these men will inevitably kill her, if the constant blare of Eighties Skinemax saxophones that grace the soundtrack doesn’t first.
Thanks to its oddball coupling of dystopic flourishes, outré scenes of sex and violence and dissections of madonna/whore complexes that seem contradictory at best, many thought London Fields was virtually unadaptable. If director Matthew Cullen and his cast prove anything, it’s that you can turn any book into a movie if you have no problem with killing the host in the process. But an inability to translate Amis’s voice is the least of its multitude of failures. Nothing works. Not poor Thornton’s attempts to deliver bruise-purple voiceovers. Not Sturgess’s working-class scummery, in a performance pitched somewhere between Kabuki theater and a conniption fit. Not the assumption that dressing Johnny Depp up as a scarfaced Tim Burton-ish grotesque with a hunger for scenery will shock some life into the proceedings. And certainly not forcing Amber Heard to become a walking, talking, vamping pin-up, ogled by the camera like it was a horny college freshman. Her Nicola is supposed to be Death, destroyer of worlds. Instead, she’s turned into the human equivalent of a close-up of slightly parted lips.
We have not yet mentioned the sequence involving Minecraft-like blockheads doing a barbershop-quartet singalong about the cosmos, or Sturgess redoing Singin’ in the Rain‘s title dance number to the sound of “Money for Nothing,” or Heard in a sexy-cop costume possibly sodomizing someone with a nightstick, because all of this sounds much cooler and outrageous than it actually is. Nor have we brought up the wink-nudge suggestions that it’s all in the writer’s head, because meta-textualizing doesn’t suit this film any more than applying traditional notions of quality to it. This London Fields is nothing but fallow ground. Or, to apply the metaphor that Thornton’s scribe gives to Heard’s sexed-up temptress when he first meets her, it’s a black hole — something that sucks talent, taste, light, energy and matter into maw and leaves everything stranded in a void.