Why 'London Fields' might be the worst big budget film ever
Amber Heard calls it "difficult", Rotten Tomatoes has handed it a rare 0 per cent rating, and even the director agrees with the terrible reviews. So why is this movie so bad?
The Martin Amis movie curse has struck again. This week, a film of the acclaimed British author’s seminal novel London Fields hits cinemas here after a torturous eighteen-year gestation.
Like just about every other Amis novel to come to the screen – The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, Money – this tale of sex, death, murder and darts is a floundering mess, despite an impressive cast including Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard and an uncredited cameo by Johnny Depp.
First published in 1989, reviews for London Fields the novel were amongst the strongest of Amis’ career. Set in 1999, the narrator is an ailing American writer, Samson Young, who heads to London and becomes embroiled with Nicola Six, a femme fatale who foresees her own death, and the two possible murderers: Keith Talent, a low-life darts player, and Guy Clinch, an uptight British banker with a nightmare home life.
A movie adaptation has been in the works since 2001, when Amis wrote a script for the esteemed David Cronenberg, a director with a reputation for shooting ‘unfilmable’ novels like Crash and Naked Lunch. But after Cronenberg quit the project, London Fields began to spin out of control. Other directors – Outlaw King’s David Mackenzie and the prolific Michael Winterbottom – came and went.
Credited as co-writer alongside Roberta Hanley, Amis was adamant that his book could work on screen. “I don’t think there’s anything particularly unfilmable about London Fields,” he later noted in an interview with The Guardian, although his elaborate post-modern digressions hardly lent themselves to a glossy Hollywood movie. Eventually, the script fell into the hands of Matthew Cullen, an acclaimed music video director for the likes of Adele, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.
For Amber Heard, it was "one of the most difficult movies to film”
The shoot took place back in 2013, with Amber Heard cast in the key role of Nicola Six. With British actors Jim Sturgess and Theo James playing Keith and Guy, Billy Bob Thornton signed on as Samson Young.
In an interview after the shoot, James told me: “I can’t imagine, visually, how it will be like. There are so many tangent storylines in there and they’re all deeply interwoven. It’s this black comedy mixed with a bit of farce, with a bit of murder-mystery and a bit of femme fatale neo-noir.”
He was initially optimistic about the movie's reception.
“I think with that kind of material, you can imagine it but it’s really only once you get on set that things start falling into place, because it is quite out there. It has a very strong sense of style, and that needs to be the case.
"The book is supposed to be the millennium, so now it’s something like 2018. In the book, there are these overtones of potential Russian nuclear war, which was the whole Cold War thing, which was touched on, but now is skewed slightly differently. I think it could be really cool – very stylistic. These four characters interweave in a really interesting way.”
If this suggested the multiple narrative layers Cullen was dutifully grappling with, the book’s complexities weren’t lost on the other cast.
“It lived up to its expectation with regards to how difficult it was,” Heard told me in 2015. “It was one of the most difficult movies to film and it has proven to continue to be difficult.”
She was equally as critical about her own portrayal as Nicola Six: “It was really difficult. I don’t know. I can’t say I did her justice. I tried!”
The film’s real nightmare began in post-production, as Cullen prepared a cut for the Toronto Film Festival, where it was set to debut.
The lawsuits against the film and its stars kept coming
This glitzy premiere never came, as producers Jordan Gertner and Chris Hanley – unbeknownst to the director – created their own alternate cut. According to a lawsuit filed by Cullen, this included “incendiary imagery evoking 9/11 jumpers edited against pornography, as well as juxtaposing the holiest city in Islam against mind-control”.
The cast – including Depp, who had a small cameo – wrote to the producers expressing their distaste at a radically different approach they didn’t sign up for.
Heard and Depp were married at the time.
While Cullen set out to sue the producers for fraud and misappropriating his likeness, the producers counter-sued, accusing Cullen of going over budget. Amid this legal cross-fire, the Toronto programmers cancelled the festival’s screening.
A year later, in November 2016, the producers sued Heard for $10 million, for allegedly “breaching contract and committing tortuous interference.” She and Cullen, the producers stated, conspired to remove some provocative scenes.
Heard retaliated in March 2017, claiming the producers had violated a ‘nudity rider’ in her contract; after she had wrapped filming, a body double was used to shoot explicit pornographic scenes with – Heard alleged – the intention of making audiences believe it was her.
Eventually, Heard and the producers reached a settlement late last year, allowing London Fields to finally be released in America.
By then, Depp and Heard were having legal woes of their own over their bitter divorce proceedings.
Even after all that, the film reviews were brutal
It didn’t end there. The critics panned it, with the film receiving a rare 0 per cent rating on critical aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
“I’ve read the reviews,” shrugged Cullen, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter. “I agree with them.”
It made just $252,676 on its run in American cinemas, making it one of the worst-ever performers for a film shown in over 600 screens. Also featuring such 'It Girls' as Lily Cole and Cara Delevingne, who plays Keith’s wife Kath Talent, it was a paltry return.
While the London Fields fiasco is a classic case of inflated Hollywood egos, Amis gallantly stood by the release.
“I found it surprisingly faithful in many ways,” he told The Guardian, though admitted translating his words to the screen was no easy feat. Even the BBC’s two-part adaptation of Amis’ triumphant Money – a tale of advertising executives and garish movie producers – settled for a timid and rather literal take on Amis’ plot.
So, are Amis novels simply too hard to adapt?
Certainly most directors – perhaps with the exception of Cronenberg – would’ve struggled with London Fields. Amis’ prose is at its most dazzling and dense, a book about authorial control and unreliable narrators that is more geared to the written word than the visual image.
Simply showcasing the lurid characters, detaching them away from Amis’ manipulations, leaves filmgoers with nothing more than a gross set of caricatures.
Does this mean fans of Amis are destined never to see one of his books work on film?
“So far they seem to be doing [my novels] chronologically, and twenty-five years after the event,” Amis told me, when I interviewed him some years ago, for the release of Dead Babies, the second adaptation of one his novels. “Night Train will be made in 2020, or something!”
Back then, Don’t Look Now director Nicolas Roeg had scripted Amis’ 1997 crime yarn, and the author was “desperately curious” to see what Roeg would do.
In the end, Roeg’s version never got off the ground, although Amis’ prediction of a 2020 release is not so far off the mark. British director Carol Morley (The Falling) has filmed Night Train, starring Patricia Clarkson as Detective Mike Hoolihan, and due for release this year.
Perhaps wisely, Morley has re-titled it as Out of Blue, calling it a radical departure from the original novella.
“The way in is to own it and believe it’s yours,” she says. Maybe this is the only way to adapt Amis.
London Fields opens in the UAE on March 7th.
Updated: March 4, 2019 01:05 PM