Grade: C

It’s noble of Anthony Minghella to want to say something about the social and economic disjunction between First and Third Worlds and between the gentry and the struggling poor in western democracies. It’s unfortunate that “Breaking and Entering,” his well-meaning contribution to the discussion, turns out to be a drab, unaffecting combination of unrealistic drama and muddled didacticism, impossible to connect with on either an emotional or an intellectual level.

Jude Law stars as Will Francis, an architect dealing in urban renewal projects who moves into a new office with partner Sandy (Marti Freeman) in the improving but still dangerous Kings Cross area of London, where they intend to transform a run-down neighborhood into a modernistic multiple-use park and development. Will’s aptitude for such architectural renovation is contrasted with his domestic difficulties: his relationship with long-time girlfriend and apartment-mate Liv (Robin Wright Penn) is oddly strained, as is his connection with her daughter Bea (Poppy Rogers), an adolescent suffering from severe psychological problems that make her unruly, unable to sleep and prone to do nothing but obsessively practice gymnastics.

But the real narrative kicks in when the new office is burglarized by young Bosnian refugee and incipient delinquent Miro (Rafi Gavron), whose gymnastic abilities certainly exceed Bea’s: he’s agile enough to scale the walls of the old warehouse in which the office is located, spy through the sunroof to learn the alarm code, and then break through the glass and turn off the alarm so that the gang he works for–headed by his uncle–can strip the place of all its electronic equipment (which they had earlier delivered). The police are unable to find the culprits even after a second break-in, so Will takes it upon himself to stake the place out; and lo and behold he catches Miro in the act and trails him back to his flat in a shabby housing development.

But rather than informing the cops, who include a bunch of simply hard-nosed types but also a tough but more sensitive rebel named Bruno Bella (Ray Winstone), Will instead takes some clothes for mending to Miro’s mother Amira (Juliette Binoche), a seamstress, and seizes the opportunity to look through her son’s room, where he finds his stolen laptop, on which his files remain. (The kid had been told to erase the drive, but became fascinated with Will’s life and didn’t.) He falls into a romance with Amira. She becomes aware of who he is and photographs their trysts as a possible blackmail tool. And ultimately he’s confronted with a choice between letting the matter slide or confirming Miro’s complicity but, in the process, perhaps destroying his own family.

Will is obviously intended to be a symbol of a well-intentioned everyman, a confused fellow with a social conscience who’s acutely aware of his own failings (as well as that of the world around him) and, through his dealings with Amira and Miro, of the miseries they’ve been forced to experience and their seemingly hopeless situation. And Amira is meant to serve as a living example of the result of Balkan brutality, hoping against hope to save her son from the sort of evil that killed his father and ruined his uncle. But the characters never come to life in Minghella’s writing or in the cast’s playing of them. In Law’s laid-back hands Will is such a wispy, reactive sort that his blundering confusion might as well come from innate ineptitude as from ethical distress. And while one can vaguely understand his being drawn to Amira, whose earthy sensuality is in stark contrast to Liv’s Scandinavian coolness, and why she in her desperation might be attracted to any man who showed an interest, the connection between them never really catches fire, not just because Law is so pallid but because Binoche’s exertions don’t get us very deep into her persona, either. Emotionally Miro is pretty much a handsome blank, though Gavron is a charismatic kid, and neither Penn, who’s reduced to furrowing her brow incessantly until a big (but unconvincing) dramatic outburst at the end, nor Rogers, who’s handicapped by the fact that Bea’s traumas are never explicated, can do much with underdeveloped roles. By contrast Winstone and Freeman add a bit of welcome energy to a film that otherwise wilts beneath the director’s conscientious but ultimately undernourished approach. The overall pallid feel is accentuated by Benoit Delhomme’s undistinguished cinematography.

In an odd way “Breaking and Entering” is reminiscent of “12 Angry Men” (1957) in its concentration on a single man struggling to do the right thing about a young man involved in a crime. The setting is much broader, of course, and the romantic element something new. But the real difference is in what it ultimately says. In Reginald Rose’s script, the Henry Fonda character was an obvious symbol of rectitude, not exactly smug but not the unmoored bundle of uncertainty Will is here, and the young man, barely seen, was innocent. Miro, on the other hand, is unquestionably guilty, in the legal sense at least (though all sorts of political questions could be raised). And letting him walk not only frees him, but the whole gang in which he’s but a tiny cog. So what is Minghella trying to say? That social inequities excuse criminality? That our problems are all a matter of nurture, not nature? That it’s better to forgive one troubled youth, even if it means letting a whole bunch of hardened villains go unpunished? Or that even those whom we know to be guilty of wrongdoing can reform if only given the chance–a point apparently made by an odd subplot involving a gregarious hooker (Vera Farmiga, having a grand old time) who drives off in Will’s SUV but returns it in perfect shape, and apparently with a full tank of gas, though he expects never to see it again.

Who knows? And worse, who cares? “Breaking and Entering” is a serious film but a garbled failure.