James Marsh

King of Thieves

04/09/18

The Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary of April 2015 was always destined to be a contender for big screen dramatisation. This intriguing story, about a bunch of crooked old age pensioners who somehow manage to pull off the biggest theft in history, sounds promising enough on paper and, just three short years after the event, here’s the film, directed by James ‘The Theory of Everything‘ Marsh and boasting a clutch of revered veteran actors in the leading roles. What could possibly go wrong? But what promises to be a cracking crime drama turns out to be more of a mystery movie – the biggest mystery of all being who ever thought this script was ready to go before the cameras. I hate to say it, but this is criminal in the worst sense of the word.

Michael Caine plays Brian Reader, former money launderer, now going straight mostly due to the influence of his wife, Lyn. Played by Francesca Annis, she is the only female to get any lines in this film. Make the most of them, because within minutes of the opening, she is brown bread, Brian is lonely and he’s suddenly open to interesting offers. When a mysterious young man named Basil approaches him proposing one last job, Brian decides to pull together a bunch of his old cronies and go along with the idea. Yes, they’re going to rob Hatton Garden, but guess what? Basil has a key to the building, which somebody lent him ages ago and then forgot about (I know – don’t ask).

Soon Brian has his crew in place. They are Terry Perkins (Jim Broadbent), ‘Kenny’ Collins (Tom Courtenay), Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse) and Danny James (Ray Winstone). Kenny also brings in his regular fence, Billy ‘the Fish’ Lincoln (Michael Gambon), who he thinks will come in very handy when they’re trying to dispose of stolen diamonds. Getting into the building turns out to be deceptively easy, but of course, no heist ever goes exactly to plan…

You’d think the biggest obstacle in the crooks’ way would be the brick wall they have to drill through but, trust me, this is nothing when compared to the film’s plodding script. It tries to be a treatise on the indignities of ageing but, instead, seems happy enough to have the thieves sitting around complaining about their respective ailments, or how they can’t figure out how to use the internet. Seriously, if you’ve managed to pull together such a complement of respected actors, it might be a good idea to give them some witty dialogue to deliver, but there’s never any danger of that. It’s hard to describe the dismal feeling of watching the great Michael Gambon reduced to the role of an incontinent fish seller, whose few words of dialogue mostly begin with the letter F. Likewise, Jim Broadbent is generally a delight on screen, but who decided to ask him to play a hard man? Courtenay’s character is deaf, which is hilarious in itself, right? And as for Winstone… well, let’s not even go there. Suffice to say this isn’t up there with his work on  Nil By Mouth.

It’s only close to the film’s conclusion where we get a glimpse of what this could have been,  a brief sequence where footage of each character is intercut with glimpses of the actors in their heyday. But it’s too little, too late – and, sadly, by the end of King of Thieves, it’s not just the vault wall that’s been bored.

You have been warned.

2.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Mercy

09/02/18

The Mercy is a tale of hubris and fallibility, the true-life story of Donald Crowhurst, dreamer and romanticist, who – in 1968 – decided to try his luck in a Sunday Times sailing competition, to circumnavigate the globe. The terms were stringent: the expedition must be solo and, in order to beat the record set by Sir Francis Chichester, non-stop. But none of this could deter Crowhurst, who refused to let reality colour his vision. So what if he didn’t have a boat, or funds, or enough sailing experience? He had faith and ambition; why should that not suffice?

In James Marsh and Scott Z. Burns’ telling, Crowhurst cuts a sympathetic figure. Likably portrayed by Colin Firth, he elicits my compassion, even as he jeopardises everything for his fool’s errand. He wants to win the competition, he says, to publicise his business – a ramshackle outfit, selling his home-made navigational aids and other inventions. And nobody stops him: not his wife (Rachel Weisz), who supports him with an air of resignation, clearly used to indulging his fantasies; not his main sponsor, Mr Best (Ken Stott), who makes him sign over his house and business as collateral, in case he fails. And certainly not ambitious local reporter and opportunist, Rodney Hallworth (David Thewlis), who uses Crowhurst’s mission to boost his own career.

In the end, though, Crowhurst can’t blame anyone but himself. He submits the entrance papers; he signs the contracts; he even designs his own boat. Alone at sea, daunted by the enormity of the undertaking, he slowly comes to realise that neither he nor the boat is up to the task. But he can’t admit failure; how can he? He is ‘in blood stepped in so far that should [he] wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.’ If he returns, it’s to ruin: everything he has will belong to Mr Best. If he persists, he is unlikely to survive. Desperate, ashamed, he makes a drastic plan. He’ll lie.

From hereon in, the film becomes a stark portrayal of a man’s decline. Eaten by shame and humiliation, Crowhurst begins to lose his mind. And, when he realises that his lies will be exposed, he sees no way out other than to commit suicide. It’s a desperately miserable end, so pointless, so avoidable. But it’s such a human tale, and told with such warmth, so mercifully, that it’s compelling in its sadness.

Make no mistake, this is a slow and ponderous film. The very nature of the story means that much of what we see is just a man on a boat – however gorgeously it’s shot. But Crowhurst’s unravelling tells us much about humanity, and it’s a fascinating insight into a frail psyche.

3.9 stars

Susan Singfield