There is a cum-stained shelf in some odious basement that’s reserved for cinematic cesspools like “London Fields.” Considering the origin and nature of the film, that could very well be its intended destination. The eternal struggle of successfully adapting books for the screen is the attempt at aligning a particular directorial vision with the impregnable imagination of the reader. Pulpy and controversial novels like Martin Amis‘ dystopian “London Fields,” where lust, love, and death get caught up in a perverse orgy of bondage and sleaze, might prove once and for all that some material is best left to fester in the imagination. Whatever director Matthew Cullen and writer Roberta Hanley have cooked up with this screen adaptation, it’s nothing if not a debauched hodgepodge for the senses that dares you to abandon it at almost every turn.
In some not-so-distant future (Amis’ novel was written in 1989 and set in 1999, but the film associates with no year), Samson Young (Billy Bob Thornton) is a writer experiencing writer’s block and visiting London during an unspecified ecological crisis of apocalyptic proportions. He swaps houses with a fellow pee, the much more successful and arrogant novelist Mark Asprey (Jason Isaacs), and in one parasitic pub meets three people who become the inspiration of his current novel. They are: the straight-laced gent and posh millionaire Guy Clinch (Theo James), a bottom-dwelling dirtbag and darts champion Keith Talent (Jim Sturgess), and the “event horizon of a black hole,” atomic sexbomb Nicola Six (Amber Heard) who has the uncanny ability to foresee death. She confides in Samson that she has seen her own murder, by someone in that bar, and allows him to make her the subject of his latest novel. By manipulating both Keith and Guy, projecting two versions of herself according to each male gaze, she embraces her impending doom by being its primary orchestrator.
The stories characters tell themselves and the audience, the garish and invasive montages, and all the dregs that ooze in and out of this filthy wormhole of a world, turn “London Fields” into a catastrophic experience. Forget everything you’ve learned to love about things like “story,” “character,” and “narrative” because you’ll end up feeling slightly violated. Keith, Nicola, Samson, and the outrageously ridiculous Chick Purchase (Johnny Depp), fashionable gangster and renowned dart champion, are not characters. They are perverted images of one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. Following along with the plot only serves to enrage, as you quickly realize that nothing and no one you see has any substantial or thematic purpose for existing other than the shock-value of their gaudy superficiality. Think of the film as a perfume ad for poison, directed by the deformed spawn of David Cronenberg and Kurt Vonnegut.
But, wait! For those of you who have mastered the art of compartmentalizing, there are one or two things to enjoy in “London Fields.” Namely, the cinematography of Guillermo Navarro, who magnifies the dark magic he created in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and creates some truly dazzling images. Whether you’d want them to stay with you or not is irrelevant because they’re just too splendid not to. Then there’s Jeremy Reed‘s production design of the demonic interiors and exteriors, with more personality in one piece of furniture than the entire cast of characters put together. If you’re to signal out any of the actors, it would be Sturgess’ disgusting portrayal of Keith as one of the more repugnant people you’ll likely to see. And Johnny Depp, who continues his recent tradition of playing lavishly cartoonish characters but is having so much fun doing it here that it becomes contagious.
With a few great lines of dialogue, and something of a self-deprecating tone (the film becomes its own best critic when Samson tells Nicola that she’ll be perceived as a one-dimensional male fantasy in his book), “London Fields” may not be as disastrous as it immediately feels to be. Buried underneath the glop are interesting notions on reality, creation, and the nature of death. And thanks to its aesthetic, it’s at least a very beautiful catastrophe. But, with an incredibly uninteresting lead female character who will drive feminists off the wall (not helped by Heard, who is obviously attractive, but won’t be winning any acting awards anytime soon) and an infuriating storyline, the film is an impossible recommendation. At one point, Samson gives advice to Keith’s young daughter, and tells her that “whatever is happening in the world, imagine something else that will make you happy.” I’m paraphrasing, but it’s the best advice I can give to anyone who dares to watch “London Fields.” [C-/D+]