A VERY BRITISH GANGSTERNR
Throughout A Very British Gangster, I kept thinking about Charles Laughton in his creepy early stage and 1932 screen success Payment Deferred, in which he played an accused killer. Like Laughton in that film, Dominic Noonan, the crime boss around whom this new movie revolves, speaks with a heavy Manchester accent and is baby-faced and given to girth and murder (although he will never exactly admit to such on camera). Noonan and Laughton, in real life, also share one more telling element: Each is (or was) a gay man.
This last fact comes towards the middle of the documentary’s unspooling and immediately takes it out of the generalized, slightly awestruck and worshipful profiling of powerful thugs so eternally beloved by filmmakers of both fiction and fact. Unfortunately, director Donal MacIntyre doesn’t delve any further into this matter than having Noonan describe a youthful incarceration wherein he was repeatedly raped and savaged by violent, horny fellow inmates (all of whom later paid terrible prices for their offence, he assures us).
As daintily as MacIntyre skirts around this fascinating issue, he plunges wholeheartedly into exhaustive outlining of the sway Noonan holds in the Manchester underworld, with every rumored crime and jury acquittal recounted in lip-smacking detail, often accompanied by a thunderingly obvious “Bad Boys” rap score. Noonan is also something of a Fagin to a passel of ne’er-do-well lads he always seems to have around him—pimpled, illiterate and adoring—who aspire to the Big Man’s eminence. They’re frankly hideously repellent, each of them worthy of a Cruikshank sketch of their own.
MacIntyre tries to offset the prurient piling up of murders, tortures and general offenses against society committed by Noonan’s tribe by attempting to evoke the gang’s more human side. When Noonan’s brother is murdered—just before said sibling jokingly begs on camera to do his miserable life a favor and kill him—a massive funeral is held, during which Manchester public schools and roads are closed for two days. The family sobs, the bagpipes mournfully wail and a hopelessly mediocre wannabe singer nephew performs “My Way” a capella, in tribute to his relative as well as his idol, Frank Sinatra. (His other less-than-shatteringly original inspiration is Elvis.)
By far the most sympathetic character here is Noonan’s young son, with the horrendous name of Bugsy, who vows not to follow into a life of crime, while professing undying love for the father he has only really known for two unincarcerated years during his 11-year-old life. But MacIntyre’s heavy, heavy hand fudges it again when Bugsy is shown in a too artfully sad pose, bent over the ropes of a boxing ring, where he hopes to achieve a pugilistic escape route from his hellish childhood.