Film » Film Review

The Bank Job is witty, irreverent; Miss Pettigrew is dull, dull, dull

There'll always be an England

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Peter De Jersey as Michael X in The Bank Job. - PHOTO BY JACK ENGLISH/ LIONSGATE FILMS
  • Photo by Jack English/ Lionsgate Films
  • Peter De Jersey as Michael X in The Bank Job.

The post-Oscar period has developed a well-deserved notoriety as a dumping ground for films that studios and distributors don't expect to set the world on fire (putting it mildly). Sometimes, of course, that means the films really stink. Other times, more happily, it merely means they're small, off-beat or otherwise commercially marginal.

Roger Donaldson's The Bank Job belongs to the latter category of unprepossessing yet interesting oddities. Cast mostly with journeyman actors whose names and faces will be unfamiliar to viewers lacking a direct line to the BBC, it's a crime film with a seedy, retro aura that, however deliberate, makes the production feel more low-tech and cheaper than it assuredly was. Its other downside is it has so many characters—enough to make Dickens feel chintzy—and plot layers that it seems to beg a second viewing.

Yet it is soundly made, a genre piece that's happy enough to spin a good tale and not care about its lack of stars or even making that eponymous bank heist particularly exciting.

Indeed, what's evidently most of interest to the filmmakers here is not standard-issue thrills or crime-caper jauntiness, but the hints of buried history indicated by that slipperiest, and usually most inauspicious, of prefatory titles—"based on a true story."

What's true about the story veteran screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais spin? I've done some quick research on that and ended up, I'm afraid, a bit in the dark. The clearest facts are these: In 1971, a Lloyd's bank in London's Marylebone district was hit by a heist that came to be known as the "Walkie-Talkie Robbery." The thieves were detected using walkie-talkies by a ham radio operator, who alerted the authorities. Yet because the signal could only be narrowed to a 10-mile radius of central London, the police checked out 750 banks during a weekend without managing to halt the crime.

But the most curious thing came afterward. Though the heist was estimated to have netted £500,000, it was a newspaper sensation only for a flash, then disappeared abruptly. The reason, allegedly (another slippery term), was the government's issuance of a "D-Notice," a national-security gag order that would keep information on the case out of the public realm for decades. But why would the government want to hush up a bank heist?

Was the government itself behind the job? Was the crime's main object not the loot (most of which was never recovered) but other contents of the Lloyd's vault? Did the royal family impel Britain's secret services, MI5 and MI6, to instigate the robbery to retrieve photographs of Princess Margaret having sex on a Caribbean beach with black revolutionaries?

All of those suppositions, and the burgeoning subplots they imply, are just for starters, folks. The Bank Job lays out a juicy scheme of conspiracy, connivance and criminality that encompasses the Soho porn industry, an incipient sex scandal linking S&M-inclined members of Parliament with a notorious madam, widespread payoffs to Scotland Yard and much else. Not to give anything away, but here's a movie in which no less than Lord Mountbatten delivers forged passports to fleeing criminals at Paddington Station in broad daylight.

The writers center their tale not on any such lofty personage, however, but on a scruffy car dealer and small-time hood named Terry (Jason Statham). Though happily married, Terry has a romantic past that includes former flame Martine (Saffron Burrows), who re-enters his life one day with a proposition. What she doesn't tell him is that she has been picked up on drug charges returning from Morocco. In order to escape the law's full weight, she's agreed to connect the government with criminals who can pull off a certain bank job.

"I know half the villains in London" is how the svelte model puts it when asked if she has the proper acquaintances. (The idiomatic script uses the word "villain" in this quaint British sense—indicating not bad guys but merely good, old-fashioned lowlifes.)

What Martine tells Terry is that she has found out that the Lloyd's Baker Street branch is undergoing a security renovation that will leave its alarms out of commission for a week. Can he put together a crew—Martine herself will be along for the ride—to tunnel into the bank's vault and make off with its rich hoard?

Terry demurs, understandably. He and his usual posse are villains of the small-time, penny-ante sort. A bank job that requires elaborate preparation and execution is far beyond their experience or evident capacities. But Terry owes money to an unforgiving crime boss, and the attraction of all that loot is simply too good to pass up. He assembles his posse and sets to work.

Because it detours repeatedly into tangential subplots involving the aforementioned Soho porn demimonde, cops on the take, operatives from MI5 and MI6 (confusion of these two branches is a running joke) working for government higher-ups, sexually compromised MPs, a Jamaican revolutionary named Michael X (a real-life character) and so on, the film's build-up to the actual heist is understandably protracted. And when the crime finally occurs, it's presented in a manner that's almost the opposite of taut and edge-of-your-seat gripping.

Donaldson's casual, matter-of-fact way with the big heist is one of the things I liked best about The Bank Job. Not only does it upend most of the usual clichés that govern heist films, it also sets us nicely for what comes next—the bank job's chaotic aftermath, when all of the disparate forces that have been vying for the vault's contents go lethally berserk in their frenzied efforts to best their competitors.

Donaldson was an apt choice for mounting this deceptively intricate crime film. An Australian who made his international breakthrough with Smash Palace, he has directed movies as polished yet different as The Bounty, No Way Out and Thirteen Days. The Bank Job may be a leaner production than those Hollywood-scale films, but it benefits greatly from Donaldson's crisp, supple, understated visual style, which flavorfully evokes not only the London of 1971 but also various terse, unshowy crime films of that era.

British cinema may not abound in truly memorable crime movies, but every once in a while, a fine one pops up that reminds us of its gritty lineage. The Bank Job ends up sharp enough to be classed with the likes of The Long Good Friday and Sexy Beast, tough-minded films that explore the criminal realm with verve, wit and insight.

As for being in the dark about the amount of truth contained in this "true story," I have no idea whether the film's writers have imagined all of the explanations they give for the "Walkie-Talkie Robbery," or if they've drawn on actual, unpublished facts. It could be all made up. But the possibility that fiction here may be a vehicle for conveying at least a few elements of the truth makes the film's fascinations linger after the lights come up.

The Bank Job opens Friday throughout the Triangle.


Fresh from the Oscars, Amy Adams struts her stuff in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. - PHOTO BY KERRY BROWN/ FOCUS FEATURES
  • Photo by Kerry Brown/ Focus Features
  • Fresh from the Oscars, Amy Adams struts her stuff in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

A less persuasive variety of contemporary British film finds it necessary to import American stars to play Brits, presumably in an effort to appeal to the sort of American moviegoer who's more interested in stars than in the real thing. For some reason, many of these movies are feather-light confections aimed at female viewers.

The latest stars Frances McDormand. It's called Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, though to me it felt more like Miss Pettigrew Dies for an Eternity. I will admit I was bored. Out of my skull. Not every Brit chick flick makes me wish I was anywhere else. This one did.

In London on the eve of the blitz, McDormand plays Miss P., a frowzy, dyspeptic ne'er-do-well who bounces from one miserable job to another. At the end of her rope, she talks her way into the job of "social secretary" to a would-be chanteuse and stage starlet named Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), who inhabits the kind of deluxe Art Deco flat that once would have housed Jean Harlow, and who finds herself torn between three suitors—the most artistic and least reputable of whom is, of course, her true love.

Though set at the end of the Depression, this is the kind of film that imagines love always trumps security and that Americans with lame British accents are just fine playing plucky Londoners. There's not a whit of truth to it. But that's not the real problem. Miss Pettigrew wants to recall the best screwball comedies of the 1930s. Yet its profusion of obvious plot machinations and lack of snap, sparkle and insinuating insouciance make it play more like a quickly forgotten Broadway farce of no particular decade.

Directed by Bharat Nalluri, whose past credits are in television, the film boasts an expensive look and plush period production design. Stars McDormand and Adams no doubt cost a bundle too and are commendably game in the thankless parts they're assigned. But the movie around them needed its own effervescence; lacking that, it's about as spirited and delectable as week-old champagne.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

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