FILM AUGUST 13, 2008
A Very British Gangster
The Weinstein Company
The base, the very source, of many documentaries is not often acknowledged-- the confidence that the people in the film have in the director. In A Very British Gangster, a criminal named Dominic Noonan, notorious in the extreme, talks on camera about his career with almost complete frankness. Murder he evades, though not the murders he has threatened. Everything else he talks about in a chatty way, as if he were discussing a conventional life. Noonan, thirty-nine at the time of filming and the head of a gang of about twenty youths and men in Manchester, converses in pubs and streets and homes with more than candor. Indeed, a lot of the time Noonan and company are bragging.
The director for whom they brag is Donal MacIntyre, an English television reporter, whose first film this is. (It was first shown on British television.) How he won their confidence we do not hear, but he certainly has it. Of course MacIntyre knew two things in advance. Noonan was famously infamous. This film is not an expose: it's an extension, so MacIntyre was dealing with a sort of celebrity. And once he got their agreement, he surely knew, Noonan and pals would love doing the film. As often happens in documentaries, the subjects became camera-drunk: they apparently couldn't get enough of it. In one street scene Noonan chases some kids out of the way because they interfere with the "fucking filming."
Most of the youths and men in his gang, including his nephew and son, look typecast. Noonan himself is barrel-chested, large-domed with a shaved head, bespectacled, with a humorous ferocity. A sketch of his bio: he is connected with six gangland murders, has swiped $8 million in heists, has spent twenty- two of his thirty-nine years in prison, and has paid out a fortune in legal fees. During the course of the picture, he is tried three more times and acquitted three times. His nephew Sean, who has a pleasant singing voice, is asked where and when he sings. "At weddings and funerals and acquittals," he says. "Mostly acquittals."
Part of Noonan's relative insouciance about his prison years may be due to the fact that he is avowedly gay (despite having a son). More: he describes in detail, without a trace of rancor, his enforced sexual initiation in boarding school. Currently he sleeps with at least one member of his crew, who is proud of it. In any case the members of the Noonan gang like being in it: at one point he leads them in a jolly song while he whacks away on the drums.
The making of this picture must have gone on for some time. In one grim scene Noonan's brother boasts of not caring if he is killed; he is just going to keep on living as he does. Later--we don't know how much later--he is stabbed to death. A tremendous funeral is held, with lots of shops and offices closing out of respect. Not much of Dominic's mourning is shown, nor many details of his revenge. We do know, however, that earlier on, in Godfather style--he twinkles away as he tells us--he chopped off the head of a dog to persuade its owner of something.
The brother's funeral is Roman Catholic, and at one point later MacIntyre asks Noonan (they are in a church) how he reconciles his career with his religion. His reply probably won't surprise priests, though it can't gladden them. He says that after he does certain things, he goes to church for forgiveness, and after forgiveness he can carry on as before.
The setting of almost all we see is Manchester. The first shot is of Noonan standing before a vista of the city, saying, "Manchester is where I was born, where I live, and where I'll die." Most of the dialogue is in local dialect and thus incomprehensible. Sensibly, the film is equipped with subtitles. The effect is like watching a foreign film even though it is in English. It makes us feel, as well-subtitled foreign films do, admitted to privacies.
Cinematically this film is an oddity, not because it is shot in very good color but because MacIntyre uses many of the devices that we would expect only in fiction films--shots in the rearview mirrors of cars, extensive crane shots, and so forth. Further, some quite incidental shots may have been rehearsed. These effects don't hurt the picture's basic verity, but they do gift-wrap it a bit.
A Very British Gangster proves yet again that one great asset of film is vicarious participation in crime. Sex is OK, adventure and fantasy and even horror are OK, but crime lets us sneer at the laws we must live by, lets us relish evil and come out unscathed. Paradoxically, we feel as if we have stepped for a while into the real world underneath the laws and proprieties, a world that generously tolerates the conventions prettily laced above it. This is the crux of the matter--the schizoid world. I was once the foreman of the jury in a Mafia trial (not murder) and was convinced of this stratification. I was very glad of the surface texture, but I knew that the forces of law were well aware of the huge cosmos underneath--knew that, though this cosmos could be nagged from time to time, it was there.
As we are all aware from The Godfather and multiple other gangster films, and as MacIntyre's film warrants, honor among thieves is their ultimate power. They pay occasional dues to the law in prison terms and hangings, but they are unified, placed, reconciled to their risks by their fierce honesty to themselves. Anyway, Sean says that he sings a lot at acquittals.
Boy A is about a quite different sort of criminal, a victim of fate rather than a dynamo of ego and will. By coincidence this film, which is fictional, also takes place in Manchester. A twenty-four-year-old man, now called Jack Burridge, is trying to start his life again--really for the first time--after a fourteen-year prison term. Through much of the story we know he is an ex-con, and we are led to think that, as a boy, he stole cars and went for joyrides. Yet we eventually learn that when he was nine he was involved in a much more serious crime. When we see it, we shiver at how easily a child could slip into it. (Boy A is what he was called during the trial.)
Now Jack is out, with his new name in a new city, under the watch of a caseworker who really cares about him. A job is found for him at a warehouse, and he finds a girl. Yet as the film moves on, we feel less of a struggle than of the evolving of a fate. Everyone, including his boss and his girlfriend, knows that he was in jail, and all are being open-minded about it. He and the girl, affectingly drawn by Katie Lyons, are making their way to a lasting relationship. His boss even brags about the fact that he has given a fellow a second chance. Jack's mates at the job take him as a friend. But when they all find out, through newspaper snooping, what he really did, the weather changes.
The screenplay by Mark O'Rowe from a novel by Jonathan Trigell never minimizes the weight of Jack's juvenile act, yet it conveys that he is more a victim of boyish stupidity than a criminal. The director, John Crowley, matches this blend with two kinds of shots, conventional ones and spare astringent ones that suggest the secret Jack. Crowley gets a remarkable performance from Andrew Garfield: his Jack is a person who carries guilt with him even when he is trying to override it. Peter Mullan, who was a strong Jean in the Mike Figgis film of Strindberg's Miss Julie, plays Jack's caseworker in a quietly stalwart key. Crowley rightly focuses a good deal on Mullan's wise and weathered face.
Any reader of The New York Times knows that in recent years the paper has been in the throes of rejuvenation, trying to shuck its "good gray" image, trying for up-to-the minute verve. For this reader, the most extraordinary part of this change has been the effect of Manohla Dargis, one of the paper's chief film critics. She joined the Times in 2004 and quickly showed large knowledge of the field and basic seriousness. But what has especially marked her work from the start is her attractive style. Her opinions can leave me distanced, even aghast, but the writing in her reviews is always clever, pulsing, winningly intense. Her pieces seem less to have been poked out on a computer than uncorked from a constantly sparkling source.
What is even more remarkable is that she seems to have affected much of the Times--not everyone, by any means, but a substantial number of critics, columnists, feature writers, and headline writers for all except the grave stories. A few Times people were breezy before Dargis came (Maureen Dowd, for instance), but a lot of others seem to have become somewhat Dargisian. I doubt that the editors have enjoined the staff to take her as a model, but then they didn't need to. The staff is, of course, well aware that the paper wants to metamorphose and must see that Dargis is a prime exponent of the change.
The editors certainly knew her style beforehand, which must be one of the reasons they engaged her, but could they have known that, as it seems to one reader, a film critic would both certify and enhance so much of the paper's new spirit?
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann