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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.