When he wants to be, Colin Farrell is the most accomplished male film star of his generation. But one of the interesting facts about his career is that he clearly hasn’t always wanted to be.
As well as an A-list actor he’s also been, at various times, a playboy and party animal, and at all times a proud dad of two sons.
In recent years he starred in some big budget turkeys, of which director Oliver Stone’s Alexander and Michael Mann’s Miami Vice are probably the most infamous examples. Instead of copper fastening his stardom, those two big budget duds almost sunk it completely, but then Farrell emerged victorious in small budget winners like In Bruges and Cassandra’s Dream.
Along the way he’s made it pretty clear that he hasn’t always enjoyed life in the public eye or the trappings of celebrity. In fact, all the scrutiny has led him into to some epic benders it looked like he might never recover from, but somehow he always has.
For a man who usually makes his living playing a tough guy, in person he’s quite anxious and thoughtful, and he still has that Irish reflex of asking how you are and looking fascinated by your answer.
Being Irish has probably helped him keep his perspective on his career -- after all he started out in the lowly Irish-themed BBC soap Ballykissangel, and there’s plenty in Dublin willing to remind him of the fact to keep him grounded.
This week Farrell can be seen giving the performance of his career in London Boulevard (opening Friday), the shockingly intense crime thriller written and directed by The Departed Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner William Monahan. It’s a stylish gangster falls for a young movie star tale that somehow manages to explode all the clichés of the genre.
Looking like a handsome mash up of Cary Grant and Vinny Jones, Farrell has never looked better. In fact he lights up the film in every scene he appears in, bringing a raw intensity and total authenticity to his character.
“I think that’s a very good way to put it,” Monahan tells the Irish Voice. “He is a mash-up of Cary Grant and Vinnie Jones, he’s very smooth in it, very passionate and very tough. As I look at it now I think he’s got the presence of any of the best leading men on the screen. I think he’s a superlative actor and a genuine film star.”
The plot of London Boulevard can be summed up in few sentences. A gangster (Farrell) is released from Pentonville prison determined to clean up his act, and he ends up being approached to work as a bodyguard for a young movie star -- then they fall in love.
But this being a script by Monahan, nothing is as easy as it seems and a happy ending is by no means guaranteed. For one thing, Farrell’s character never actually takes the job of bodyguard.
“A lot of the ads and reviews have him as a gangster who goes to work for an actress who is a class above,” says Monahan.
“In truth Colin’s character in the film is middle class, complicated and he isn’t really a gangster and he never goes to work for her. He tells her explicitly in the middle of the film that he hasn’t taken the job. Yet every time I open the newspaper I see it described as a film about a gangster who goes to work for an actress.”
It’s a shame that most reviewers are this lazy, because they do this complex and genuinely captivating thriller a disservice.
All the men (and now that I think about it, the women too) in London Boulevard are conniving or gutless or damaged or deadly – which is, after all, largely true in life, with those wonderful exceptions that keep us turning corners.
Another theme that gets explored is how toxic fame can be.
“Fame isn’t something people seek anymore unless you’re Kim Kardashian,” says Monahan. “Fame is a kind of torture and a crucifixion now. I don’t think many people seek it any more because it can be a very deadly thing.
“The paparazzi in London are particularly brutal to young actresses (and we see Keira Knightley being hounded relentlessly by the press in the film). What they do is kind of a sexual assault.
“Another aspect of it is people paying price for celebrity. If the obscure photographer can shout out something terrible enough and make the woman cry it makes a good picture. And in a way it makes him feel good as well. Because he’s gotten a leg over, he’s made a celebrity notice him.”
Some may like their gangster films more formulaic, but I can't recall a recent film that entertained me or made me laugh half as much as London Boulevard did. What’s truly impressive is how believable Monahan’s characters are.
“I’ve never known a gangster by sight any time in my entire life. You hear about them. Growing up in Boston you know which boroughs to get out of instantly, but that’s about it,” says Monahan.
“You just put yourself into the world and be one of the characters yourself, which I hope I don’t do much of in civilian life.”
After the Oscar win for The Departed, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg, Monahan was getting offered every gangster film in Boston, but he decided to break out of that and go and do a film out of the country.
“I’ve been travelling back and forth to London since I was 18 and I’m as familiar with it as I am with anywhere else,” says Monahan.
But trust him to make the process more complex. He puts it down to his Irish background.
“I have an Irish background. It’s dark, bleak and rain stormy. I believe we’re all pretty much f***ed. There’s a certain fatalism in my outlook and I approach it with humor.
“We’re all going to die, probably too soon and probably in ridiculous pain with plenty of things left undone, so we might as well have a good time.”
Unlike other writers and directors working in crime films, Monahan never falls for the all-too-easy clichés of the genre.
“If you know Britain you’ll know that London Boulevard is a little subversive. No one in it sticks to the behavior you expect from people in their class. It violates a lot of the rules of the more recent British gangster films,” he says.
That’s true, there are no diamond geezers or pearly queens in London Boulevard, and the working class isn’t portrayed as a kind of species of animal. That may have led to the film causing some controversy when it was released in Britain.
“I sometimes wonder if the British response to the film was because I’m an American and Colin’s Irish. There was a pro forma criticism of his accent when he’s absolutely bang on,” says Monahan.
“I think character is approached in movies very mechanically these days. What characters do is who they are. But I think if we are entirely made from our own circumstances than we are very poor creatures. The one thing that unites all of my films to date is that all of them are pretty paradoxical.”
Below, catch the trailer for London Boulevard: