Tom Courtenay

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 Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

23/04/18

Based on a bestselling novel and handsomely filmed on location by veteran director, Mike Newell, it’s hard to dislike this clunkily-titled romance. It’s handsomely produced and nicely acted by an ensemble cast and, if occasionally it wanders a little into the land of the twee, well, that’s no great hardship, because the story is interesting enough to keep us engaged to the end.

It’s 1946 and the world is recovering from the devastating effects of the second World War. Unfeasibly successful young author, Juliet Ashton (Lily James), already has a best-selling book under her belt, and is being vigorously courted by rich and handsome American, Mark Reynolds (Glen Powell). But then a letter arrives from somebody she has never met. Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) has chanced upon her name and address in a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and mentions that he is a member of the titular society, hastily formed and named back in 1941, when Guernsey was under Nazi occupation.

After exchanging several letters with Dawsey, Juliet decides to head over to the island to attend the society’s next meeting, much to the consternation of her publisher – and best mate – Sidney Stark (Matthew Goode), who needs her on the mainland to do an extensive book tour. Once on Guernsey, Juliet quickly discovers that the events of the war have left many wounds that have yet to heal and a bit of a mystery that’s desperately in need of a solution. Moreover, when she meets Dawsey in the flesh, she finds herself becoming more and more interested in him…

Okay, so there are no great surprises in the story, but when you have actors of the calibre of Tom Courtenay and Penelope Wilton in supporting roles, you aren’t going to be disappointed with their efforts – and Katherine Parkinson is a particular delight as the oddly named Isola Pribby, a member of the society who is constantly tipsy on the homemade gin she distils and sells. The parts of the story that deal with the Nazi occupation could doubtless have been handled with a little more abrasiveness but, more than anything else, this feels like a lushly filmed advertisement for the joys of Guernsey itself, with a host of gorgeous locations that are sure to encourage plenty of tourists to pay the place a visit this summer – which is rather ironic when you consider that all the filming was actually done in Devon!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is unlikely to thrill you, but – if you’re a romantic soul who fancies a nice warm hug of a film – I’m sure this is just the ticket.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Doctor Zhivago

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02/12/15

It’s hard for me to accept but it’s been fifty years since I saw this film. It was in 1965 in a Chinese cinema in Singapore, where the idea of a snowbound landscape seemed an impossible fantasy. I remember, as a boy, being absolutely blown away by the experience. It was one of the first ‘serious’ films I’d ever watched, though I also seem to remember that many of the critics of the time were rather unkind to David Lean’s interpretation of Boris Pasternak’s best-selling novel, accusing it of being a ‘chocolate box’ movie.

So it’s great to be able to reassess it on the big screen and to realise that whole sections of the film have remained with me, imprinted indelibly on my unconscious mind; and to confirm that this really is an ‘old school’ epic of admirable power and grandeur. I didn’t know it then, of course, but Lean had one heck of a struggle to realise his vision. Unable to film in Russia, he had to make do with locations in Madrid, (in summer) his actors sweating under layers of fur. Other shots were secured in Finland, Canada and Portugal. A cavalry charge across a frozen lake was recreated by placing a cast iron sheet across a dry Spanish river bed and sprinkling it with plaster dust.  Not that any of that is evident. You’ll rarely see a more convincing evocation of winter landscapes.

Dr Zhivago is essentially a poignant love story, set against the turbulent events of a changing Russia. It begins with Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a policeman in the ‘new’ Soviet Union, trying to find the lost daughter of his half brother, celebrated poet, Yuri Zhivago and his lover, Lara. Could it be ‘The Girl’ (Rita Tushingham)? From there, the story cuts back to Yuri’s tragic childhood and then moves on to the tumultuous events of the First World War and the Russian Revolution, where the lives of both Yuri and Lara are forever linked and transformed by the horrors of war.

It’s totally engaging, even at a bum-numbing 193 minutes. (Those with weak bladders will be glad to hear that the film still features its original fifteen minute intermission). In the title role, Omar Sharif, fresh off Lawrence of Arabia, provides a remarkable calm at the centre of the cinematic storm, while as Lara, Julie Christie has never been more radiant. Add a stellar selection of supporting actors – Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, and you have a powerful film that dazzles as much today as it did in the decade in which it was released.

But it’s the magnificent set pieces that really linger in the memory: a savage cavalry attack on a protest march, with Zhivago’s tortured expression conveying the true horror of the situation unfolding in front of him; a packed railway station, where Zhivago and his family fight to board a train to the Urals; and a remote country house transformed into a gleaming ice palace by the extremes of the Russian winter. What’s even more remarkable is that this was all achieved without the benefits of CGI and other contemporary special effects – Doctor Zhivago is a tribute to all the technicians, set builders and costume designers who toiled to make David Lean’s remarkable vision a reality. Fifty years on, it still stands as a beacon of extraordinary creativity and a tribute to a man’s uncanny ability to film epic stories.

Chocolate box? Well, if that’s the case, tuck in. This is a delicious confection, as tasty now as it ever was.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Legend Of Barney Thomson

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29/07/15

Robert Carlyle has been suspiciously quiet of late, but The Legend of Barney Thomson, based on a series of novels by Douglas Lindsay, puts him on both sides of the camera, as he directs and stars in this gruesome farce concerning the misadventures of a Glaswegian barber. Barney (Carlyle) has been working at Hendersons for most of his adult life but because he lacks ‘the chat,’ he’s beginning to prove unpopular with the regular customers and is on the verge of being given the push. This is a disaster for him as Barney is a tragic character. He has no real friends and his diffident personality (a far cry from Begbie in Trainspotting) means that everyone takes advantage of him. This includes his pushy mother, Cemolina, (a scene-stealing turn from Emma Thompson as a chain-smoking, foul mouthed harridan with a gambling addiction.) Meanwhile, Glasgow is being rocked by a series of murders, made even more shocking by the fact that the killer has a predilection for mailing body parts from the victims (all male) to the next of kin. Events become more complicated when Barney unexpectedly finds himself in the frame as a potential murder suspect and soon falls under the watchful gaze of the vicious DI Holdall (Ray Winstone).

Once you get past the outrageous nature of the plot and the fact that everything is played with the volume turned up to eleven, there’s much to enjoy here as the hapless Barney stumbles from one potential disaster to another. Carlyle uses some infamous Glasgow locations as his backdrops and even though the results are unlikely to endear themselves to the Scottish tourist board, they give the film a definitive look and style that speaks volumes. There are also some superb cameos here – Tom Courtney as the priggish Chief Superintendent McManaman is an absolute hoot, while Ashley Jenson makes a meal of her role as an uptight Detective Inspector locked in a bitter feud with Holdall.

While the film is far from perfect, it’s nonetheless entertaining and occasionally had the sparse audience at the showing we attended laughing out loud. But a quick glance around the less-than-packed auditorium speaks volumes for its chances of success. A pity, because this is a bold film, that takes no prisoners. And that’s a rare thing in these troubled times.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney