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

renewed TV shows political drama new star wars movies Western Cannes stoner young adult Writers Guild of America Grammys Paramount Pictures YouTube National Geographic Rock DGA BBC Discovery Channel Oscar X-Men Women's History Month trophy Sundance TV Nominations rotten movies we love DC Comics Rocky crime drama name the review technology Lucasfilm Binge Guide art house E! criterion fast and furious Indigenous razzies Year in Review HFPA Countdown 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards spider-verse Pop TV Paramount Network Columbia Pictures 45 mission: impossible BET Awards South by Southwest Film Festival Martial Arts Rocketman spy thriller Heroines Instagram Live Animation Nickelodeon Extras Elton John canceled Pacific Islander spinoff Hallmark Christmas movies Certified Fresh FX summer preview heist movie black comedy Peacock 79th Golden Globes Awards Sony Pictures Polls and Games Emmys Reality Competition Turner Podcast rom-coms Action best social media CW Seed target scene in color Tarantino comic king arthur deadpool period drama BET toy story WGN historical drama RT21 CBS christmas movies venice AMC Superheroe Premiere Dates obi wan 99% award winner Paramount Plus boxing Fox Searchlight Television Critics Association kids GIFs SXSW Fox News Tumblr canceled TV shows Infographic Brie Larson NBC Musicals Lionsgate science fiction Shudder mutant Mystery Pop Alien Prime Video reviews aliens jamie lee curtis Mindy Kaling french animated Watching Series Black Mirror festivals movie MCU FX on Hulu cults Election Pride Month scary cancelled television San Diego Comic-Con serial killer ESPN The Academy 2018 BBC One biopic Sundance Now Amazon Studios NYCC cancelled Trailer Trivia American Society of Cinematographers vs. Comic Book casting richard e. Grant Chernobyl TruTV Marvel Television witnail die hard cancelled TV series rt labs critics edition archives kaiju crime children's TV cars Mary Tyler Moore jurassic park Academy Awards know your critic thriller TNT 93rd Oscars james bond Amazon politics screenings SDCC Ellie Kemper broadcast werewolf concert Marvel FOX game show rt labs 20th Century Fox Native comics The CW toronto twilight cinemax Esquire OneApp MSNBC directors critic resources joker Turner Classic Movies 73rd Emmy Awards dexter TCA Winter 2020 what to watch Rom-Com royal family See It Skip It Oscars slasher classics romance laika LGBTQ Film Emmy Nominations VH1 streaming Comics on TV Box Office DC streaming service hispanic heritage month 72 Emmy Awards composers MGM legend Apple TV+ 4/20 Vudu ABC Family cats critics PaleyFest Teen television nature TCA 2017 Best Director Syfy green book Interview pirates of the caribbean sopranos dreamworks Sundance 2015 The Witch VICE fresh Holiday SXSW 2022 TV movies Family Red Carpet sag awards Netflix NBA Super Bowl 2017 New York Comic Con vampires Spring TV Paramount dragons Marathons Music spanish Best Actor films docudrama Winter TV leaderboard The Walking Dead cooking USA Network feel good disaster worst screen actors guild sequel based on movie Nat Geo zombies slashers video on demand HBO Go TV One versus suspense 94th Oscars documentaries Anna Paquin AMC Plus ABC Signature war Acorn TV child's play TCA scene in color PBS talk show TCA Awards HBO Max APB Britbox ViacomCBS Hallmark Pet Sematary GoT binge The Walt Disney Company Valentine's Day Logo genre Universal Pictures President king kong saw Legendary Fantasy live action 21st Century Fox blockbuster anthology Crunchyroll festival aapi strong female leads finale police drama boxoffice Netflix Christmas movies breaking bad YouTube Premium Star Wars mob Tomatazos docuseries Quiz Amazon Prime new york 71st Emmy Awards Lifetime Christmas movies Pixar women Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt CBS All Access spain Fargo batman 90s Disney+ Disney Plus godzilla international IFC Films gangster nbcuniversal scene in color series El Rey Hulu travel Funimation Walt Disney Pictures Focus Features south america Ghostbusters TV renewals Geeked Week wonder woman chucky Cartoon Network Sci-Fi football telelvision high school TV Creative Arts Emmys Broadway YouTube Red crime thriller Exclusive Video Cosplay latino blaxploitation mockumentary golden globes ABC Mary Poppins Returns Thanksgiving Disney streaming service free movies theme song hidden camera Spike Fall TV Kids & Family TIFF BAFTA Showtime Classic Film ratings Hollywood Foreign Press Association Bravo dceu Baby Yoda Country halloween tv Musical adenture History comic books MTV independent black Avengers posters hispanic comedies ghosts adaptation video 24 frames reboot revenge cartoon The Arrangement Masterpiece Arrowverse Star Trek Schedule basketball indiana jones golden globe awards Black History Month elevated horror Apple TV Plus transformers lord of the rings sequels blockbusters dogs Pirates miniseries trailers Toys FXX A&E zombie monster movies doctor who Epix 1990s all-time E3 Awards game of thrones japan anime interviews Sony Opinion comic book movie prank Awards Tour sports movies superman 2019 Freeform rotten stand-up comedy Neflix DirecTV cancelled TV shows Star Wars Celebration HBO TCM Set visit Adult Swim book adaptation marvel cinematic universe Captain marvel Ovation italian emmy awards Shondaland ID romantic comedy universal monsters live event Hear Us Out scary movies Christmas PlayStation OWN indie spider-man WarnerMedia remakes Best and Worst Tokyo Olympics discovery summer TV preview Marvel Studios dark ITV Disney Plus Mudbound Song of Ice and Fire sitcom streamig 2021 TBS Amazon Prime Video diversity Video Games Sneak Peek Image Comics SundanceTV 2020 teaser IMDb TV true crime justice league Mary poppins Trophy Talk medical drama book debate Tags: Comedy Holidays Photos rt archives robots popular quibi Travel Channel A24 Superheroes Calendar new zealand scene in color film series IFC TV Land stop motion foreign mcc Character Guide natural history parents documentary 2016 TLC nfl kong space hist comic book movies a nightmare on elm street summer TV Film Festival Starz Television Academy Biopics 007 CMT marvel comics First Reviews Best Picture Comic-Con@Home 2021 tv talk The Purge japanese Comedy australia harry potter Spectrum Originals unscripted Reality halloween Comedy Central biography target psychological thriller Summer USA Horror First Look scorecard Universal adventure crossover supernatural Wes Anderson Apple Tubi GLAAD Drama Endgame superhero cops Crackle satire Food Network YA facebook LGBT streaming movies franchise psycho Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Dark Horse Comics comiccon asian-american Disney hollywood news series DC Universe action-comedy CNN worst movies Warner Bros. dramedy spanish language zero dark thirty Winners Stephen King RT History singing competition obituary BBC America VOD Disney Channel dc Best Actress Lifetime olympics