Fops and Robbers
In general, period films are not what you would call a commercial sure shot in the current marketplace -- unless, of course, the period in question is the 22nd century or some "long, long ago" that resembles the 22nd century. In Plunkett and Macleane, director Jake Scott -- son of Ridley, nephew of Tony -- takes an interesting, if not wholly successful, approach to the problem of goosing up the eighteenth century for a young demographic that may not even know when the eighteenth century was.
The story is essentially an outlaw movie with pistol-packing highwaymen instead of Colt-carrying cowboys or Thompson-toting gangsters. The cowboy hats and fedoras may have been replaced by powdered wigs, but most of the conventions and icons of the genre are still in place.
The screenplay is based on the real-life exploits of James Macleane and his partner, Plunkett, who briefly captured the imagination of London with a series of holdups almost exactly 250 years ago. (Macleane is believed to have been the model for Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera and, by association, in the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera.) But the film appears to be no closer to actual events than any of the classic cinema accounts of John Dillinger or Wyatt Earp.
We meet well-spoken Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller) late one night as he flees the authorities; in a graveyard, he encounters the coarser Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), who forces him at gunpoint to eviscerate the corpse of a thief in order extract a huge ruby the dead man had hidden by swallowing. Unfortunately, the authorities arrive in time to arrest both men, forcing Plunkett to ingest the gem himself. Since the class system within Newgate Prison makes Macleane practically one of the wardens, Plunkett enlists him to negotiate their freedom in return for the ruby, which must be painfully and disgustingly removed.
To Macleane's dismay, the lower-class Plunkett insists on becoming his new best friend. But when Plunkett outlines the scheme on which he is intent, Macleane is smart enough to recognize its virtues. They have just enough money to dress Macleane as a gentleman; he will pass himself off as such while casing social gatherings for likely robbery victims. The two -- with Plunkett in the lead -- will then don masks and pull off easy holdups.
It's an uneasy partnership from the beginning. Macleane -- who as the son of a somewhat well-off minister has received an upper-class education -- has all the trappings of a gentleman...and all the vices. He is a snob and a compulsive gambler, and his inability to set aside his genteel manners while in his highwayman role repeatedly endangers the duo. He is also a believer in romantic love; and as soon as he lays eyes on Rebecca (Liv Tyler), his already weak sense of caution diminishes even further -- never mind the fact that her guardian (Michael Gambon) is the Lord Chief Justice in charge of law enforcement. Macleane's unusually polite demeanor only increases the pair's notoriety, as the press -- such as it was in those days -- inflames the public imagination with tales of the Gentleman Highwayman.
Much of Plunkett and Macleane is an able and entertaining romp, no more realistic than it has to be. Its greatest flaw is the casting of Miller (Trainspotting, Hackers), who continues to have virtually no screen presence. He's the classic bland, good-looking young man, and it's hard to remember what he looks like 24 hours after walking out of the theater. His utter anonymity is aggravated by the pairing with Carlyle (The Full Monty, Trainspotting), who has a more interesting face as well as a more gripping talent.
The movie's other problem is that Scott tries to make things feel more contemporary: He has pulled out every anachronistic trick in the book. While you have to applaud his boldness, the flourishes are often more distracting than helpful. You get used to the occasional contemporary dialogue. ("Would you mind awfully fucking off?" Macleane says at one point.) Besides, more often than not, apparently anachronistic popular idioms turn out not to be inappropriate to the time, as a perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary reveals. But it's difficult to ignore the use of MTV-ish editing or camera movement and impossible to keep your head within the film's world when Scott unleashes zydeco and disco and hard-rock tunes on the soundtrack. At times this device seems to be making a point, as when the minuet and gavotte steps of a ballroom full of bewigged swells perfectly matches the disco tune on the soundtrack -- but what point is difficult to say.
This deliberate use of jarring cultural juxtapositions is nothing new: It was Ken Russell's stock-in-trade for years. ("Roger Daltrey is Liszt!") But in those films -- take The Music Lovers and Mahler, for example -- Russell had no interest in conventional narrative or the appearance of realism. He was serving up a blatantly surrealistic stew. (Nor would I suggest that Russell pulled off his stunts all that often, either.) Scott's techniques, though, often seem to contradict his ambitions: He's after the traditional qualities of outlaw movies -- thrills, suspense, action -- but his stylistic gimmicks undercut the viewers' potential to identify with the main characters or lose themselves in the illusion of realism that is essential for creating those qualities.
Its limitations aside, however, Plunkett and Macleane is just plain fun: After all, in addition to Carlyle, you get to see Alan Cumming (the flirtatious desk clerk in Eyes Wide Shut) camping it up all over the place as Macleane's foppish, polysexual pal Rochester.
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