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MOVIE REVIEW

'Breaking and Entering' is a polite study of race and class

Jude Law plays a London architect and Juliette Binoche a widowed Bosnian refugee seamstress with whom he has an affair in Anthony Minghella's "Breaking and Entering." (LAURIE SPARHAM/THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY)

Anthony Minghella has been too preoccupied with other periods to focus on matters currently at hand. He did the American Civil War in "Cold Mountain," World War II in "The English Patient," and the bohemian rhapsodies of 1950s Yanks abroad in "The Talented Mr. Ripley." With "Breaking and Entering," a chicly done, exceedingly mild drama that opens today, Minghella makes his not-entirely-convincing debut in the 21st century.

His movie is set in contemporary London and is about communication, compassion, and gentrification -- about the unbearable weight of being noble when you're also well-heeled and horny. Naturally, the star is Jude Law . So, no, our strugglers aren't the average folks you'd find in a Mike Leigh or Ken Loach movie. "Breaking and Entering" is a bourgeois movie full of bourgeois problems presented bourgeoisly.

Law plays Will, an architect whose firm, Green Effect, has undertaken a project that contributes to the commercial overhaul of London's once-seedy King's Cross section. The firm recently relocated to a converted warehouse in the neighborhood, and now a ring of Bosnian Serb immigrants has been acrobatically breaking in to steal the expensive new Macintosh products.

Will and his business partner, Sandy (Martin Freeman ), take the robberies in stride. They insist to their employees that the theft wasn't carried out by the firm's black, African-born cleaners. Sandy even gives the new security pass-code to the well-read maintenance forewoman (Caroline Chikezie ), whom he's sweet on. But after a second break-in, Will and Sandy spend nights parked outside the office hoping to catch the bandits.

For Will, these break-ins and stake outs further complicate the state of life with his Swedish-American girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn ) and her autistic daughter (Poppy Rogers), whom he's basically adopted as his own child. One night though, he catches Miro (Rafi Gavron ) in the act of stealing and chases him across town to the shabby apartment he shares with his mother, a widowed Serbian Muslim seamstress named Amira.

Because Juliette Binoche is playing this hyphenate seamstress, Will doesn't bang on the door and have the kid and his bosses tossed in the pokey. He returns the next day with a tattered jacket, for it is he who's arrested. And I can't say I blame him. Accent and all, Binoche is an emotional kaleidoscope of joy, desperation, maternal love, sensuality, humor, pain, and panic.

But, alas, she's also Juliette Binoche. Her casting is the most blinding sign that "Breaking and Entering" won't be risking glamour to address the race and class divides.

This isn't Binoche's fault. She was equally at home (and homelier, too) in 2000's "Code Unknown," Michael Haneke's far nastier tale of a European city (Paris) seething over immigrants, class, and race. "Breaking and Entering" doesn't seethe. It aims to soothe. Beauty is a balm here. Like Binoche, Wright Penn makes the most of her radiance. Her character, Liv, is meant to seem chilly in the Liv Ullman vein, spending most of the film in expensive-looking cream-colored blouses. But if Wright Penn's beauty gets more refined as she ages, so does the depth of feeling in her performances. She's a more convincing actor than ever.

Nonetheless, I'd have liked to see some of the compassion and altruism on display here exemplified by uglier people. The foxiness afoot (indeed there's a literal fox on the loose) gradually saps the movie of its power. This is the first Minghella film since 1991's "Truly Madly Deeply" that wasn't originally based on a literary work. He comes up with some wonderful discreet passages, like the scene when Amira comes to visit Will at a construction site. He's just eaten an apple and is casually holding the core.

That and the stolen Macs are nice signs of temptation. And Law, in his third film with Minghella and his latest cheating-lover role, is the ideal Adam, a dashing and delicately intuitive interpreter of personal conflict.

But much of the trouble with this film is that Minghella brings all the costumey prestige of his previous sagas to bear on this smaller new picture: the layers of Gabriel Yared's silky score that wrap softly on every scene, the rampant tastefulness, and the unstoppable sophistication that keeps trying to reform the unseemly and non-natively English characters.

In fact, Minghella's preference persists for stories where he can put his brown characters in the background. "Cold Mountain," for instance, as movingly made as it was, managed to frame the Civil War around a love story between Law and Nicole Kidman , with Renée Zellweger in the unsinkable mammy part. Slavery was secondary to the story at hand. "Breaking and Entering," though, is about a kind of white privileged guilt and the apologies that come with it. Minghella gingerly backs away from provocation, from realism.

Why not have Law torn between a ritzy Jamaican girlfriend and a Pakistani seamstress? And why are all the lowlife and immigrant characters, including that cleaning woman and a funny Vera Farmiga as a Russian King's Cross hooker, shunted to the margins?

It's ironic, really. "Breaking and Entering" is a film about gentrification that feels in every way gentrified itself.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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