Bob Hoskins became an actor by accident when he accompanied a friend to an audition at London’s leftwing Unity theatre in 1969, and achieved TV stardom as the doomed travelling salesman in Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven.
In 1980, he became an international star in Scottish director John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday, his first major screen role, as the East End gangster Harold Shand who dreams of transforming his minor criminal empire into a legitimate enterprise by rejuvenating London’s decaying docklands and playing host to the 1988 Olympics. Hoskins’s Shand was compared favourably with Edward G Robinson’s seminal Little Caesar of 1931.
By 1986, Hoskins was established on the world scene when he won the top acting prize at Cannes for the complementary role of petty crook George, in Neil Jordan’s romantic film noir Mona Lisa, who emerges from a long jail stretch to be employed by Soho vice-boss Michael Caine as the minder of an alluring call girl played by Cathy Tyson.
Both characters are men of extreme violence whose sympathetic sides are gradually revealed as the films progress. Shand is a winner who smells victory in the air; George is a romantic loser, manipulated by all those around him. But it’s Shand who ends up breathing the lethal toxic fumes that arise when wires are crossed between the IRA and London’s underworld. George’s essential decency allows him to find a modicum of happiness. The Long Good Friday and Mona Lisa are the high points in the major cycle of British crime movies that began in 1970 and 1971 with Performance and Get Carter.
Both films draw confidently on American genre models; neither is mere pastiche. Their authors root their familiar plots in an authentically recreated British underworld: in the first, an ambitious criminal spreads his tentacles across the city to establish his power, in the other a disoriented ex-convict is released into a once familiar milieu he no longer recognises. As scripted by playwright Barrie Keeffe, with the help of director Mackenzie and producer Barry Hanson, The Long Good Friday is a political movie with a sharp satirical edge, in which Shand embodies the laissez-faire economics of the newly emerging, classless Thatcher regime, as well as a Little England patriotism.
His vision of a future Britain we now recognise as breathtakingly accurate in its foresight. We are drawn into admiring the sheer energy of Shand and his criminal associates as well as reluctantly acknowledging the ideological dedication of the Irish terrorists with whom they confusedly tangle.
From the start, The Long Good Friday moves at a great clip, the dialogue crackling with sinuous lines and cockney wit as it draws together the strands of its ingenious plot. A formidable ensemble cast, many of them little known at the time, figure in a cross-section of British society and mafiosi assembled to assist Harry Shand turn the barren docklands into a promised land. They include Helen Mirren, Pierce Brosnan, Dave King, Eddie Constantine and Derek Thompson. Not the least remarkable aspect of this milestone movie is that it was very nearly sanitised, its violence toned down, its controversial politics softened up and then shortened for TV. What turned the tables was Hoskins’s explosive discovery that the distributors intended to have him dubbed by another actor. Instead, the film was acquired by George Harrison’s HandMade Films and given a proper release.
Co-scripted by Neil Jordan and David Leland, Mona Lisa is altogether more troubling and insidious than The Long Good Friday in the way it deals with obsession and myth. It draws together the tale of the princess and the frog, the contrasted figures of the Madonna and the whore, and the plot of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the way Hoskins’s minor hoodlum and Cathy Tyson’s call girl attempt to manipulate each other. Both are engaged in quests and consciously writing their own narratives. While he’s in jail, Hoskins has been fed consoling stories by his eccentric best friend (Robbie Coltrane), the film’s only truly sympathetic character.
The movie takes place in an irredeemably corrupt world that recalls the infernal vision of New York we find in Taxi Driver, but it’s as if Scorsese’s mean Manhattan streets were reworked in the cockney idiom of Lionel Bart’s Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. Ultimately, there is something trite at the centre of the movie, most especially in the overuse of Nat King Cole’s haunting Mona Lisa to suggest Tyson’s ambiguity and Hoskins’s puzzlement. But this is almost concealed by Tyson’s sense of desperation and Hoskins’s painful sincerity.
Both discs are excellently restored and are accompanied by commentaries and documentaries. Bloody Business on the making of The Long Good Friday is particularly valuable.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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