The Zeros

London Fields Could Have Worked As a Trashy Comedy

The notoriously troubled production feels like a confused, late-night erotic thriller without the eroticism or the thrills.

by | May 8, 2019 | Comments

Behind the Zero

20th Century Fox

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

The story behind the notorious adaptation of Martin Amis’ 1989 novel London Fields is infinitely juicier and more dramatic than the one on-screen, but that’s setting the bar exceedingly low. It’s a lurid, salacious show-business melodrama involving a novel overflowing with sex and murder and the legal intrigue it inspired when an attempt was made to adapt it. The latter pitted a director eager to take his name off a picture he felt no longer represented his vision against producers he accused of adding incendiary elements against his will and a glamorous movie star couple (Johnny Depp and Amber Heard) whose marriage would explode publicly in a flurry of abuse allegations in the long years between the time London Fields was made and when it was finally released.

The movie was supposed to screen at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival until director Matthew Cullen, a music video hotshot, sued the producers for non-payment and failure to allow the promised creative control. Amber Heard, meanwhile, was sued by producers for $10 million for failing to promote the film and publicly siding with Cullen. Heard, in turn, counter-sued, alleging that the producers used a body double to get around a nudity clause in her contract.

Cullen, Heard, and several of the male leads all objected to a producer adding postmodern elements into the film, including 9/11 imagery and pornographic sequences that suggested an Asylum knock-off of the orgy scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. For years, the movie existed in a state of creative and legal limbo as different cuts were produced and legal issues were very publicly hashed out, giving the movie the kind of terrible publicity that would sink a film even if it was not as staggeringly awful as London Fields is.

London Fields was finally released in 2018 to universally withering reviews (including the notorious zero rating here) and near-record box-office lows, grossing a paltry $169,000 over its opening weekend, the worst tally for a film released in over 600 theaters since 2008’s Proud American. By that time, Heard and Depp, who has an uncredited role as a peacocking dandy of a loan shark/darts champion, had gone through an ugly, public divorce that cast an ominous shadow over the already troubled film.

How toxic is London Fields? Director Matthew Cullen told The Hollywood Reporter of the movie’s seething pans, “I’ve read the reviews. I agree with them.”


The Zero

Paladin

(Photo by Paladin)

Heard stars in London Fields as Nicola Six. She’s less an unusually sexy woman than sex incarnate, a black widow of a seductress who enjoys toying mercilessly with the schmucks caught up in her web before going in for the kill.

She’s a ridiculous cartoon of heavy-breathing, vampish old-school sexuality. She’s a dame to kill for, a sex bomb with the ability to reduce grown men to drooling children. She’s Jessica Rabbit if she really were bad, not “just drawn that way.” But Nicola has another gift as well: she’s clairvoyant, albeit only to the degree that the movie needs her to be at any moment — she can see far enough into the future to know that she will be murdered by one of three men unhealthily obsessed with her.

First up is a rail-thin, dead-eyed Billy Bob Thornton as Sam Young, our hard-boiled narrator, a world-weary failed writer with a dark secret involving his own imminent death. Sam lucks into a decidedly one-sided apartment swap with Mark Asprey (Jason Isaacs), an obscenely successful hack writer  who lives in the same posh London building as Nicola.

Sam knows that Nicola is going to die, violently, in ostensibly dramatic fashion. He believes he can get a best-seller out of lightly fictionalizing his own British misadventures, but only if he’s actually there to watch the death happen. So the scribe makes Nicola a rather curious proposal: he wants permission to be there during her demise — for creative and artistic reasons, of course, in addition to a desire to make loads of money. Nicola grants it, seemingly without giving the matter any consideration.

Paladin

(Photo by Paladin)

Thornton is uncharacteristically terrible as one of the most exhausted cliches in fiction: the desperate writer who functions as the all-powerful God of the world they’ve created but who can’t begin to figure out the complexities of real life. Thornton possesses extraordinary charisma in the right roles, and he’s famously an award-winning screenwriter in real life, but he’s a thin, grey mist of a man here, a burnt out “intellectual” who whispers wall-to-wall narration full of nuggets of unbearable pretension like, “Love is blind, but it makes you see the blind man. It makes you search him out with eyes of love.”

Then there’s Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), a right proper soccer hooligan/Andy Capp type who seems to have staggered in drunkenly from a lesser Guy Ritchie crime comedy. He’s a broad caricature of a boorish, ignorant working-class bloke what enjoys downing a pint or twelve at the pub, watching footie with his mates, and shagging fit birds. Nicola is, of course, the fittest of fit birds. She cannot enter a man’s life without completely overtaking it, and Keith’s all-consuming desire to shag Nicola takes precedence over everything.

Last and certainly least in the three-way contest to either win Nicola’s heart and/or murder her is Guy Clinch (Theo James). Guy has the manners, breeding, and expensive attire of a proper member of the educated bourgeoisie, but Nicola’s teasing manipulation transforms him into a preposterously gullible half-wit.

For example, Nicola enlists Guy’s help to locate two desperate people known only as Enola Gay and Little Boy — the names, of course, of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the bomb itself. In a more knowing film, that would qualify as a sly joke about the way Guy’s desire for Nicola clouds his judgement and renders him hopeless against even the most transparent of ruses. Instead, London Fields plays this development completely straight, and Guy learns the true nature of “Enola Gay” and “Little Boy” via a book and erupts with rage at Nicola’s trickery. In order for the film’s idiotic plot to work, everyone other than Nicola has to be as stupid as the filmmakers assume the audience is.

At the core of London Fields’ staggering awfulness lies a fundamental confusion about the nature of its material. Is this a parody of the heavy-breathing, sex-saturated, melodramatic, viciously misogynistic cliches of erotic thrillers, neo-Noir, and crime fiction? Or is it a straightforward, moody, pretentious exploration of sex and death and art and destiny?

Paladin

(Photo by Paladin)

The film is at its best when it embraces the trashy, delirious comedy lurking just under the surface, like Keith dancing for joy in the rain to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” after receiving,– you guessed it — money for nothing from Nicola. Or the fact that the flamboyant world of professional darts figures so prominently in the plot.

Speaking of which, Depp overacts with trademark brazenness here in a hammy star turn as a big shot in the overlapping worlds of darts and organized crime. As is almost invariably the case with late-period Depp, ninety percent of the character comes through baroque sartorial choices. He is essentially nothing more than a walking wardrobe here, and at this point, encouraging Depp to overact is a recipe for disaster.

For Nicola and Sam, death lurks in the very near future, so at least they get to leave this hell eventually, and in the meantime, they’ve got something to do. They’re lucky in that respect.

In the most groan-inducing self-referential touch in a meta-narrative positively teeming with them, Nicola, who could only ever be a fictional character (an obscenely, broadly drawn one at that) indignantly tells Sam, “I’m not one of your one dimensional characters, Sam.” That’s true only in the sense that Nicola would need to be fleshed out further to qualify even as one-dimensional.

In an even clumsier reference to the characters in this appalling fiction knowing, on some level, that they are characters in a very bad movie, Sam tells Nicola, “I’m pretty worried that the critics are going to call you a male fantasy figure.”

The critics would call her, and the movie, much worse. Even the film’s own director did.


Final Verdict

20th Century Fox

(Photo by 20th Century Fox)

Believe the hype! London Fields is an impressively idiotic insult to the noble, shadow-laden legacy of classic film noir and its contemporary bastardization, the neo-noir. It seldom rises even to the level of passable neo-noir: it’s closer to a heavy-breathing “erotic” thriller, the kind that fills Cinemax’s nighttime programming, albeit with an inexplicably prestigious, star-studded cast and an unlikely literary pedigree.

London Fields’ path to the big screen was long, complicated, and fraught, but it might have worked out better for everyone involved, particularly Heard, if this boondoggle had never been released at all.


Nathan Rabin is the author of six books and the proprietor of Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

strong female leads cancelled TV shows Trophy Talk The Arrangement zero dark thirty Bravo Best and Worst TV Land venice PaleyFest rom-coms Pop TV Winter TV justice league 79th Golden Globes Awards The Witch classics VH1 romantic comedy Election ABC Signature Polls and Games Song of Ice and Fire ESPN based on movie Tomatazos parents robots screen actors guild Summer video on demand Turner Classic Movies cancelled TCM revenge TIFF FXX facebook Martial Arts Tokyo Olympics sitcom OWN action-comedy nfl king arthur aapi Trivia Interview Mary Poppins Returns young adult Captain marvel Calendar LGBT Neflix AMC what to watch VOD Mudbound Pet Sematary scorecard TCA 2017 japan nbcuniversal HFPA dexter Opinion blockbusters Star Wars Lifetime ITV Shondaland book Extras Character Guide political drama dreamworks spinoff RT21 Pop Hallmark Christmas movies Countdown new york comic war technology Holiday french Horror vampires E3 Nominations RT History screenings hollywood The Academy australia football batman GLAAD popular asian-american Spike boxing genre police drama ratings dramedy CBS 72 Emmy Awards Emmy Nominations space anthology Photos CW Seed laika X-Men japanese hispanic jamie lee curtis Elton John dc Pride Month TV movies rt archives jurassic park Western Awards Tour lord of the rings nature Reality Competition CNN President comic book movie Food Network PlayStation live action 93rd Oscars 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards mockumentary Premiere Dates cartoon New York Comic Con 45 Netflix Crunchyroll Mindy Kaling Amazon Sundance Now crime finale comic books BBC Podcast Hallmark Thanksgiving 71st Emmy Awards indiana jones 2017 American Society of Cinematographers scene in color festival DC Comics halloween tv Pixar TV Tumblr christmas movies aliens twilight YouTube Red thriller movies video Comics on TV scary movies concert spy thriller Funimation Logo comiccon TCA Winter 2020 sequels Britbox telelvision BBC One Paramount fast and furious deadpool toy story documentaries Lifetime Christmas movies debate Crackle discovery Winners name the review BAFTA historical drama miniseries joker documentary blockbuster DC streaming service Tarantino Nickelodeon crime drama posters rotten transformers news Film award winner 99% versus Tubi Acorn TV Masterpiece IFC Films Toys Reality talk show quibi Infographic Classic Film Rocketman travel biopic Ovation sopranos Freeform Prime Video vs. Amazon Prime Video Television Academy reboot Comedy natural history FOX binge Hear Us Out Pirates Comic-Con@Home 2021 Syfy adventure archives worst movies romance Tags: Comedy boxoffice National Geographic Hollywood Foreign Press Association Television Critics Association Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt MSNBC Spectrum Originals diversity 2016 Adult Swim TruTV AMC Plus fresh a nightmare on elm street Lucasfilm Sneak Peek remakes Marathons APB dogs serial killer godzilla Marvel Television black die hard children's TV First Reviews theme song cooking anime Baby Yoda werewolf razzies child's play TLC Wes Anderson marvel cinematic universe Watching Series Fantasy MTV Epix ID Chernobyl international Legendary canceled TV shows hist ABC See It Skip It scary Teen science fiction Creative Arts Emmys cats trailers italian MCU Anna Paquin hispanic heritage month cinemax Mary Tyler Moore monster movies chucky Disney halloween Pacific Islander Amazon Prime SDCC mission: impossible all-time cops witnail black comedy YouTube Apple TV Plus Mary poppins disaster sag awards free movies Amazon Studios movie independent The Walking Dead Country films Emmys USA wonder woman GoT CMT doctor who zombies tv talk women Ghostbusters new zealand reviews 2020 royal family universal monsters medical drama HBO Max critic resources Box Office sequel foreign USA Network 20th Century Fox CBS All Access 2018 animated suspense Marvel Disney Plus Sony Pictures slasher HBO Go A&E best feel good Family cancelled television Vudu Arrowverse spain spider-verse Rock Spring TV king kong superman Cosplay Black Mirror Columbia Pictures dragons obituary 24 frames dceu canceled Star Trek TCA Awards sports comics Comic Book casting NBA blaxploitation Stephen King The Walt Disney Company Academy Awards green book BBC America Year in Review cancelled TV series Showtime Holidays unscripted basketball rotten movies we love slashers leaderboard docuseries stoner TV renewals Starz FX on Hulu Turner period drama festivals Sundance TV spider-man worst Fargo olympics Certified Fresh cults stand-up comedy WGN Lionsgate Cannes harry potter Women's History Month new star wars movies TCA Kids & Family Rocky spanish language know your critic trophy Disney Channel pirates of the caribbean Marvel Studios Netflix Christmas movies DC Universe Travel Channel Avengers crime thriller crossover satire hidden camera San Diego Comic-Con A24 renewed TV shows Hulu heist movie streaming 2015 Brie Larson First Look Valentine's Day Shudder comic book movies television Apple TV+ cars Video Games composers Sundance 2021 NBC 1990s Super Bowl Exclusive Video criterion rt labs critics edition game show legend toronto TBS 21st Century Fox IMDb TV BET Awards series Walt Disney Pictures YA docudrama Grammys Alien ghosts Universal Pictures Superheroes supernatural VICE comedies Broadway ViacomCBS high school Christmas Trailer 90s Paramount Plus richard e. Grant breaking bad Disney streaming service Fox News TV One Mystery Musical Binge Guide Cartoon Network Fox Searchlight Animation Quiz HBO Heroines spanish gangster Chilling Adventures of Sabrina elevated horror Universal Discovery Channel teaser target 007 prank psychological thriller Superheroe FX DGA psycho SundanceTV Writers Guild of America Schedule Musicals LGBTQ PBS game of thrones The CW adaptation E! zombie Paramount Network Instagram Live Peacock south america singing competition james bond latino Music Set visit Nat Geo mob SXSW El Rey mcc book adaptation TNT indie social media ABC Family Rom-Com Drama stop motion golden globe awards 73rd Emmy Awards DirecTV Black History Month Disney+ Disney Plus mutant kong Action emmy awards 4/20 2019 biography superhero IFC OneApp Image Comics politics Dark Horse Comics saw Endgame History franchise true crime Fall TV golden globes art house Oscars Warner Bros. Red Carpet marvel comics kids adenture YouTube Premium live event Film Festival rt labs The Purge Sci-Fi Biopics Apple directors kaiju Esquire NYCC streaming movies GIFs dark Comedy Central critics BET Awards Ellie Kemper WarnerMedia