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Posts Tagged ‘The Long Good Friday’

Ahem. Please be aware: plot spoilers, not to mention effing and jeffing, lie ahead. 

When George Harrison died in 2001, as well as all the tributes and remembrances relating to his musical career, many tributes were paid to his work in the film industry as well. It is fair to say that, as proprietor of Handmade Films, Harrison was responsible for several examples of the kind of wrong-headed extravaganzas that did the British film industry no favours in the 1980s: Water, Shanghai Surprise, and Bullshot, as well as numerous even more obscure films. Set against this, though, one must consider his role in some of the very best films made in the UK in the same period – starting with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and going on to include Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail & I, any one of which would be a source of pride for the average producer.

One gets the impression that Harrison and his company made a habit of riding in like the cavalry to save a production in peril after the initial backers got scared. Handmade was only set up in the first place because Harrison really wanted to see Life of Brian and could only guarantee that if he paid for it himself. Another early Handmade release was of a film struggling for political rather than religious reasons, despite the title: John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday. Made in 1979, by 1980 the original distributor had got cold feet and was attempting to sell a hacked-down version to a TV network. Handmade took the film off their hands and thus secured the reputation of one of the greatest British thrillers. (Yeah, I know I should have done this one last weekend, when it was, you know, Good Friday. Hey ho.)

Bob ‘Oskins plays Harold Shand, an upwardly-mobile London entrepreneur. Despite having a somewhat chequered past, things are looking up for Harold – he and his partner (Helen Mirren) are prosperous,  and his contacts in local government and the police are paying off, with a major redevelopment of the docklands planned, to tie in with London’s bid for the 1988 Olympics. All this will take place provided he can secure the assistance of some foreign backers: some gentlemen from New York City, representing a large family concern. No-one in this proposed agreement is using the word ‘gangster’, of course…

But then, in the space of a few hours, Harold’s Rolls Royce is destroyed by a car bomb, his best friend is stabbed to death, and two other bombs are left at establishments he has an interest in. Someone is attempting to muscle in on Harold’s manor, and they’re not playing by the usual rules. Then evidence comes to light suggesting that the bombs have come from Belfast: the newcomers are not just crooks on the make, but an IRA detachment – an enemy the like of which Harold and his firm have never faced before…

Well, the problem the original financiers had with this film was that it might be perceived to be pro-IRA in its politics. I don’t think it is, really: it’s more a case of it being anti-Thatcherite. Certainly Harold Shand has the kind of go-getting, fiercely aggressive entrepreneurial spirit that in some ways defined the 80s. His eagerness to go into business with the Americans, and his attitude to the Irish problem are also very reminiscent of the UK government of the time. While all this is astute, it’s also remarkably prescient given it was made in the same year Thatcher was first elected. It doesn’t reflect British politics of its time so much as predict them, with great accuracy.

The film’s crystal ball extends to the casting department, as The Long Good Friday is a bonanza for Before They Were Famous fans – lurking down the cast list of this film are well-known British faces like Kevin McNally, Dexter Fletcher, Derek Thompson, Gillian Taylforth, Paul Barber and Karl Howman. Famously, though, this is Pierce Brosnan’s first film. I’ve seen it listed in the paper as a ‘crime thriller starring Bob Hoskins and Pierce Brosnan’, which is pushing it a bit, as Brosnan’s in it for less than five minutes and has only one word of dialogue.

This was no doubt a source of some regret for Pierce as the dialogue in this film is uncommonly good. Barrie Keeffe’s script is tight (you have to work out a few details of the backstory for yourself, but this is not an onerous task) and filled with good lines that manage to be blackly comic while still ringing true to character and situation. ‘Right! Frostbite or verbals!’ Harold shouts, interrogating the opposition in a refrigerated meat locker. Also, appalled at the ruthlessness of his opponents: ‘You don’t crucify people outside a church! Not on Good Friday!’ And berating his former associates for their lack of commitment to the cause, ‘A sleeping partner’s one thing, but you’re in a fahkin’ coma!’

One could go on and on, but beyond the script is a ferociously committed performance by Bob Hoskins. Doing Super Mario Bros. really seems to have been the death blow to Hoskins’ career as a leading man in big movies, which is a terrible shame as this movie proves he is an immensely talented actor. Throughout the film, Harold’s predicament sees him sliding back into methods and attitudes he clearly thought he’d left behind him. And this is an unthinking regression – Hoskins plays the brutality of the gang boss chillingly (and this is a savagely violent film in parts), but he’s also affecting in the moments when Harold realises just how he’s behaving. As the film goes on, you doubt his wisdom and future prospects more and more, but you never completely lose your sympathy for him. The film’s politics are implicit, but Harold’s story grips from start to finish.

And what a finish it is: one of the best in cinema, five minutes perfectly conceived and executed, a brilliant conclusion to the story and a dark prediction as to the future of British attitudes – towards Northern Ireland, and much else. It works as well as it does because of Hoskins – a barnstorming monologue of arrogance and hubris is followed by a long, silent shot in which Harold’s world falls apart. I’ve talked about notable moments of screen acting quite a bit recently – Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner in Westworld, Claire Danes in Stardust – but the final shot of this movie is exceptional. Hoskins’ character convincingly runs the gamut of emotions from shock, through rage and horror, and then finally to grim acceptance, and you always understand exactly what he’s feeling despite the fact he barely moves and never says a word.

To be honest, this single moment is so good it tends to overshadow the rest of the film for me. This is a shame, as The Long Good Friday is filled with great lines, interesting moments, and has a huge amount to say for itself. I tend to find American gangster movies get a little bit lost in the dubious mystique of the mob: the food and the clothes and the rest of the lifestyle are presented just a little bit too alluringly. But like Get Carter, The Long Good Friday isn’t afraid to present a rather different and much grimmer portrait of organised crime. This is a serious film and a seriously good one.

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