Dir: Sallie Aprahamian. UK. 2008. 113mins.
Immersed in the gritty multicultural realities and historical short-circuits of life in the northern suburb of Finsbury Park, Broken Lines is one of the rare films that nails the odd flavour of contemporary London. Like Shane Meadows’ recent Somers Town, it illuminates the paradox of the British capital’s village/metropolis identity crisis. However, the first feature outing from theatre and TV director Sallie Aprahamian is an uneven ride. It’s a good advertisement for the director’s (and Science Of Sleep DP Jean-Louis Bompoint’s) visual panache, but the script by ensemble cast members Dan Fredenburgh and Doraly Rosa is laboured and, for all its human touch, too often tips over into movie cliche. It would also have benefitted from a few cuts, being too slight for its (almost) two hour running time. In fact, it resembles nothing more than a quality BBC Play for Today from the late seventies.
Broken Lines has been acquired by maverick Canadian company Maximum Films but this is going to be a difficult film to offload outside of the UK: low on star power (except perhaps Paul Bettany) and sombre in mood despite a certain erotic charge, it may feel too parochial for foreign buyers. On home ground it should pick up a certain arthouse momentum, especially in London, but this is too one-note a chamber piece to make it a Red Road or even a London To Brighton.
The tightly-edited, moodily scored set-up promises well. In a series of grainy, sodium lit scenes we see Jake (Fredenburgh) pent-up and moody at his dad’s funeral and again at the corner cafe where he meets raven-haired waitress B (Rosa). Jake has a long-term fiancee, Zoe (Williams) who he is about to marry, while B has become a kind but frustrated nurse to her boyfriend Chester (Paul Bettany), a boxer who suffered a stroke that has left him paralysed down one side. The spark between trapped Jake and trapped B is lit in a seried of nicely tentative meetings and part-fuelled, part-complicated by their shared Jewishness - though this part of north London’s cultural scene never really has much dramatic impact on the story, and ends up feeling like ethnic window dressing.
There are echoes of Michael Winterbottom’s Go Now in the film’s exploration of the emotional minefield of living with and caring for a disabled partner, but that melancholy rom-com had a lightness of touch that Broken Lines lacks. Characters, too, are inconsistent, with Zoe in particular difficult to fathom - it’s hard to understand why such an apparently strong woman would go on pretending nothing was wrong with her downright hostile fiance.
And though, for a British film, the growing physical attraction between Jake and B generates off a fair amount of static, the frisson is not enough to push the sluggishly-plotted drama forward. Only Bettany’s Chester feels real in the end. The commitment he puts into the role makes his colleague’s worthy accounts seem stagey, with the notable exception of sixties It-girl Rita Tushingham as B’s snack-bar-owning aunt.
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