Someone needs to convince me – has Fernando Meirelles really proven worthy of all that City Of God hype? Hailed as Latin America's Martin Scorsese, Meirelles quickly became an international sensation, gaining the clout of a premier league director overnight with stars the world over forming lines around the block to work with him, no matter the project. But where many see Brazil's answer to Goodfellas, I still see an overlong Barcadi Breezer ad. The Constant Gardener was another film heaped with a baffling amount of disproportionate praise. Self-important and emotionally disconnected, its blatant imperative to win awards is all that's memorable to me six years later. Blindness was a marked improvement, mostly due to a cracking cast which included Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore and Danny Glover, but despite strong performances and a truly nightmarish premise, it soon disappeared from cinemas and my memory with barely a whimper. One expects the same fate of 360, a film on which the early buzz was not at all positive after the lukewarm reception at its Toronto International Film festival premiere, and the consensus was very much the same at the 55th BFI London Film Festival on Wednesday night.
360 is a British co-production, tracing a butterfly effect ripple of adulterous affairs and their consequences around the globe which, against the tide of popular opinion, I found to be gripping in spurts, even when the final destination at which the multiple plot threads converge is a self-reflexive circle, with little or nothing inside its perimeter.
An exhaustive narrative trudge across Vienna, Bratislava Paris, London, Colorado and Phoenix, this manufactured embroidery of inter-connected relationships is set in a global melting pot, where infidelity is as contagious as economic meltdown and bird flu (sources of inspiration for Peter Morgan's screenplay that are never overtly named checked). With enough relationship drama for a whole trilogy of films, 360 plays like a sketchy anthology film (The Red Violin), rather than an emotionally nuanced needlepoint (Magnolia). Geographically stretched to the seams, the script's endless globetrotting is an all-too-obvious schemata shoehorned into a story without room to spare. As if the whole thing had been reverse engineered from its title, the half-formed concept of universal guilt and vague ruminations about collective humanity's innate duplicity take precedent over character. Meirelles gets caught up trying to make his jigsaw pieces fit by any contrivance necessary and, like the Constant Gardener before it, only succeeds in emotionally distancing the audience from the lives of the people we're watching. The multiple plot lines are so cleanly convergent that, save for a few exceptions, the film is largely devoid of mystery – and so Meirelles stacks his deck with visually impressive match-cut tricks and superimpositions in an attempt to cloak the script's superficial determinism.
In his repeated use of snazzy split screen, the pieces of Meirelles's puzzle effortlessly slide into one another in a compact crush of bleed-through imagery, artfully blurring the jet-black lines that ordinarily dissect the frame when using this device. Meirelles' compositions seem to insist that different stories infringe upon and invite themselves into one another's space, an interesting visual complication that's pulling in the opposite direction of a cut and dry screenplay. There's a definite sense here of a director wanting to take Morgan's immaculately planned connectivity and dirty it up a bit, creating the impression of chaos. He might have better succeed at pulling the wool over our eyes if he took a cue from González Iñárritu, lending 360 even just an ounce of the same full blown hysteria that typifies the Mexican director's work and re-directs our attention away from his similarly over-plotted pile-ups.
The hastily explored individual plot threads are varyingly successful: Jude Law being caught playing away from home in Vienna with a high class escort and blackmailed by a business associate (a sharkishly opportunistic Moritz Bleibtreu) is loaded full of exciting dramatic possibilities, but is ultimately unconvincing – Jude Law sleeping with hookers? I know he's started losing hair at an alarming rate, but until his use of transplants is common knowledge, I'm not buying it. Still, there's always amusement to be had in watching actors too beautiful for their own good playing at the sweaty palmed nervousness of the socially maladroit. Back in London, his equally beautiful wife (Rachel Weisz) is having an affair of her own with a hunky Brazilian freelance photographer employed by her magazine, and is unsuccessfully trying to give him up. We've seen this one a dozen times before and it's not in anyway enlivened by Weisz, once more stumbling daintily through the material she's given. Somehow, whatever she's doing is enough for her to work with every famous director in town (previously being engaged to one can't have hurt either). Bringing not much more than a haughty pout and fabulously tussled hair to her role, this is another instance where her mark on the film is so nil that one spends her screentime wondering who could have more capably filled the role (though I welcome being proved wrong by her lead part in Terrence Davis' The Deep Blue Sea – hopefully her onscreen work might finally come near the quality of her impeccable turns on the London Stage). Estranged husband and wife have their dalliances, but it doesn't push their strained marriage down any remotely interesting avenues. By way of compensation, there's a subplot within a subplot involving their daughter's unspecified special needs, which is teased out and then just as quickly tossed aside.
The DOA romance between a dentist (Jamel Debbouze) and Valentina the assistant he loves (Dinara Drukarova) never gets past its initial complication: he can't get up the nerve to tell her how he feels because pursing a married woman is forbidden by his religion, and she's been in a loveless marriage her whole life and it's all she knows. This whole thread exists purely to develop Valentina's mobster husband and position him prominently in the finale. As a writer of chamber dramas (The Queen, Frost/Nixon) Morgan has no equal, but as soon as he goes from the micro to the macro he seems to perilously overextend himself, with plotting so overbearingly orderly it comes off as inelegant and unnatural. Similar problems plagued Morgan's earlier trans-national thriller Hereafter.
Blundering attempts at spiritual crisis also abound, best exemplified here by Ben Foster's sex offender Tyler who, despite serious doubts about his complete rehabilitation, is thrown back out onto the streets as if the authorities just can't wait to get rid of him – never mind that his every facial tick is an obvious indication he's a hair trigger waiting to go off the moment he sees a pretty lady. The cheap gaudiness of a portmanteau story of prostitution, sex offenders and missing kids presumed dead needs a director far less sober and sanctimonious than Clint Eastwood and now Meirelles have proved – it requires an eye which sees things from the seedier side of the street.
The opening, which sees a sleazy photographer (Johannes Krisch) persuade Mirkha (Lucia Siposová), without much arm-twisting at all, to pose for online nude pictures, hints at dark alleys Meirelles is prepared to shed light on – his camera matter-of factly framing Mirkha in a bare-breasted mug shot – but he chickens out with merely a tiptoe in the shadows.
Problems continue, as the script quickly turns ludicrous. By the end of her first session Mirkha's already slept with the photographer, and readily agreed to a get-rich-quick scheme where he pimps her out to wealthy clients and extorts them soon after. All of this is witnessed by the Slovakian woman's younger sister, Anna (Gabriela Marcinkova) who, despite Mirkha's adamant assertions that her sibling is too good for this life, has no problem whatsoever letting little sis sit in and watch as she sheds her clothes for cash. Nevertheless, Mirkha is clearly on to something here. Anna is college-bound and, unlike her sister, will surely use brains instead of beauty to escape their well-dressed poverty. We know this because she's in the habit of carting around doorstop-sized academic volumes wherever she goes. Even during a porno shoot, she's too engrossed in her studies to pay much attention to the photographer's creepy cajoling of her sister – and his wandering eye, which soon turns on her with anything but honest intentions. It's only when screenwriter Peter Morgan needs a voice of reason to create tension that Anna serves a purpose, looking up from her books and imploring her sister to reconsider her lot in life. She's a necessary moral conscience rather than a justifiably indispensable character. That this rather insidious opening all too quickly slides into farce is helped to no end by the use of portentous voiceover, soberly intoning the same sort of useless dictums that sent many people towards the exit during Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.
Meirelles tries to regain a sense of elusive meance with the inspired choice of the Trent Reznor instrumental "Ripe (with decay)" late in the film, but the very act of putting Nine Inch Nails on a soundtrack predominantly composed of world lounge music makes it obvious that this is a darkness sorely needed, but not earned.
The one character who feels "lived-in" outside of the frame rather than just a cog in the machine waiting for their turn to speak is a bereaved father (Anthony Hopkins) struggling to come to terms with the possible death of his grown-up daughter. On his flight to Phoenix – to view yet another body matching his daughter's description – he meets the beautiful girlfriend of Weisz's Brazilian boytoy, who persuaded her to move to London after he promised her a better life. Maria Flor is not only a beauty, but a formidable talent, and it's thrilling to watch young blood sharing scenes with an old master. The immediate chemistry formed between these actors of different generations playing off one another with perfect rhythm is pure joy to watch.
As she drowns her sorrows and becomes progressively more intoxicated, Maria's vibrancy seems to energize Hopkins, who after too long spent chasing ghosts is jolted into remembering he still has a pulse and a life to live. Maira has everything in front of her, much like his daughter once did, and as she starts to open up to him, the camera holds on the face of man realizing for the first time why it is he carries a world of regret on his shoulders. Hopkins breaks your heart in every frame; speaking or just reacting, he conveys the thrill of having his veil of loneliness temporarily lifted and actually connecting with another human being.
While not saying anything remotely profound, the already much-mocked speech he gives about ‘moving on' is at least proof that Hopkins could actually make reading the phonebook compelling – one of the few actors who makes barefaced exposition riveting, it's impossible not to cherish the truth Hopkins brings to even risible material with typical, effortless brilliance.
The surrogate father-daughter bond that develops between these two strangers is one that can't escape the shadow of cyclical tragedy. After their connecting flight is delayed, they agree to have dinner, but when a long queue at the information desk has Hopkins running late, the still drinking Maria finds herself sitting opposite Forster's sex offender. Being as beautiful as she is, it's an insurmountable challenge for someone whose recovery is on the ropes, and the simple act of Maria tying her hair back and exposing her neck is a heart-gulping moment. In a comically cruel reversal, predator becomes pray, as Tyler is tempted over and over by Maria's advances. Her desperate cry for affection couldn't have found a worse possible pair of ears to fall on, and Tyler's simmering volcanism in close-up is held just long enough to make you fear for her.
By the time an airport security call for Tyler has gone out over the intercom – just as he leaves with Maria for her hotel room – we revisit Hopkins, riding the escalator up to the restaurant and away from Maria, italicising another girl he's let down, another daughter he's lost.
The lives of just these three people with such charged backstories, had they been extrapolated beyond the situation that brings them together, would have made a terrific movie all of its own – a shame then that the film branches off into overwrought, muti-stranded indigestion.
A film with too many ingredients in the bag, the experience of watching 360 is like a five course dinner without any breathing room between dishes. With eyes bigger than his belly, Meirelles tackles entirely too much to ever really let his film be about anything in particular. The director parades his actors around just long enough for them to be noted by Academy voters, without making much of an impression. Building a human ladder of star power (both established and soon to be born), Meirelles' sole intention is to once again climb the Oscar stage. The question is, will anyone even remember this by the time next year's academy awards role around? 360 is an ambitious failure, but there's at least much to savour in a trio of performances, and the few moments Peter Morgan's screenplay give them to shine.