Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Long Good Friday - a timely revisit

(Rex Features)
Good Friday seemed like a good day to rewatch one of my favourite British films, The Long Good Friday.

I still regard it as Bob Hoskins' finest performance, displaying an immense range of emotions and behaviours over a turbulent two days for gangland kingpin Harold Shand; be that perception and confusion, humour and menace, or ultimately power and vulnerability. Helen Mirren brings far greater substance to her role as his wife than many leading female performers are afforded in the gangster genre that was inspired by it.

I love that it was written by a journalist from the Stratford Express, Barrie Keeffe, who filled his tapestry of London 1970s life with characters and observations informed by keeping a wily eye on the East End crime beat, daring to dream of dramatic possibilities and emotional shortcomings of his source supporting characters; greedy, sneaky and short-sighted.

Although The Long Good Friday feels like a film firmly fixed in a very particular time and place it is in so many ways a film about the future, complete with the lamentations of the elements of the past that are being sacrificed. In particular, Harold Shand's vision of a new London is remarkable for its accuracy and vision, tainted though it was by hooky money and corrupt politicians.

(Rex Features)
If anything the film underestimated the long term future potential of the regenerated East London of Harold's ambition. But as I'm sure Jack Brown's PhD thesis on the rise of Canary Wharf will no doubt reveal, those early ideas were real enough and firmly rooted in the reality of the rhythms of political life at the time. The film was released in 1980, while Michael Heseltine created the London Docklands Development Corporation a year later.

The Long Good Friday has inspired an explosive genre of British crime films, most of them laughably bad because they come up so short. In fairness, some have been very good but for different reasons: Lock Stock played largely for laughs, Snatch for style, Crying Game and Mona Lisa were impressive subplots to the big picture. But it’s also why I was so disappointed by BBC's dull and plodding McMafia which missed a chance to slot into an epoch defining high concept. I'd say Sexy Beast and possibly Layer Cake (also featuring a future James Bond) grasp the changing back story of London villains, the latter depicting the collisions between the legitimate corporations and the internationalisation of the drug trade and its game changing effects on crime and society, Michael Gambon playing Harold gone legitimate, but still with a stake in the game. As good as Sexy Beast is, as a commentary it feels like a retreat.

And then there's that ending. Having dispatched the New York Mafia with a flea in their ear, that last journey before the single frame of black (Sopranos fans take note) contains some of the most expressive facial acting I can think of in any film ever.

1 comment:

Robin S said...

In addition to utilising stories covered and characters met as a journalist, there are also claims Barrie Keefe was inspired by visits to East London pub The Two Puddings.  
The book/film (Tales from the)Two Puddings by former landlord Eddie Johnson also suggests Helen Mirren’s character in the Long Good Friday is based on the glamorous pub landlady Shirley Johnson. Added interest in that one of Eddie and Shirley’s sons growing up in the pub at the time was Matt Johnson of The The.