John Mackenzie’s THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979/80) [8/10]

Published on: September 1st, 2000

The Long Good Friday is a textbook example of what a commercial British picture should be – which makes it all the more ironic that, due to various legal snarl-ups, the film was never actually given a wide release in UK cinemas. It’s a fast-paced thriller that strikes the right balance between humour and seriousness, and manages to function as both a penetrating psychological character study and a fascinating social and historical snapshot of a certain place at a certain critical point in history. Director John Mackenzie’s achievement is to blend all these elements together into a satisfying whole without ever pulling his punches – this is one of that (increasingly) rare breed: a gangster film for adults.

The first fifteen minutes aren’t so promising: the scene-setting is clumsily and confusingly handled, marked by a heavy-handed score and a clear visual and atmospheric debt to the classic British cop show of the period, The Sweeney. Things snap into sharp focus, however, with the arrival on the scene of Bob Hoskins, whose towering performance as Harold Shand dominates the movie even when he’s off-screen.

Shand is a gang-boss of the old school, perhaps even a direct successor to the Kray twins: he refuses to have anything to do with drugs, and retains some smatterings of a social conscience. Harold sees himself as the bridge between the past (London’s seedy criminal past) and the future: he has his eye on docklands development and has pieced together an ambitious deal reliant on funding from the American mafia – represented, in a nice casting coup, by veteran film noir star Eddie Constantine.

The film begins with Shand, a pugnacious, strutting little bantam of a man, at the crest of a wave: he has his glamorous, classy girlfriend Victoria (Helen Mirren) on one arm, and the world, so it seems, on a string. But, over the course of one Easter weekend (the film, despite the title, spills over from Friday into Saturday) Harold’s world falls apart. Close associates are killed, the showcase pub he owns is blown up, another bomb is found in his casino. As the mafia grow increasingly jittery about these high-profile attacks, Harold is spurred into increasingly desperate courses of action…

Largely due to Hoskins, Harold’s problems take on increasingly epic dimensions as the film unfolds. London is his city, and he sees himself as the king of his turf, a theme subtly emphasised by the names of both his girlfriend (who, we are told, once knew Princess Anne) and his pub, the ‘Lion and Unicorn’ (a reference to royal heraldry – and every British schoolchild knows what happened to the real King Harold: 1066 and all that.)

But Barrie Keeffe’s script keeps on adding layers: though he’s basically an East End boy made good, Harold’s vivid, heightened vocabulary has distinct echoes of Shakespeare (“I’ll have his carcase dripping blood by midnight”), and this enriches the tale of his downfall with tragic elements of self-defeat and inevitability. The film also hints at an ever grander aspect of Harold’s self-image – his references to blood, Judas and crucifixion suggests he sees his persecutions and troubles, if only at some subconscious level, as an echo of Christ’s… And why else set the film on this particular weekend?

Hoskins’ intensely physical performance brings out every nuance of the script, and goes beyond it to engage directly with the camera – there’s tension in the way the flat planes of his face slope backwards from the camera, even when his body seems to be leaning into it. Like Harold, Hoskins bridges the old and the new – he’s a direct descendant of Jimmy Cagney and Edward G Robinson, while foreshadowing Robert De Niro’s strutting Al Capone from The Untouchables.

It’s a fantastic role for any actor, but Hoskins makes it his own – he carries out a shocking attack with a broken bottle that’s as hardcore as the hammer scene in The Honeymoon Killers, while the film’s final close-up of Hoskins’ face (marred only by a couple of cutaways) surpasses its closest predecessor, Greta Garbo in Queen Christina.

That close-up is all the more devastating because for once motormouth Harold has been silenced – he realises that he’s impotent against greater historical and political forces. He’s been given one last triumph – his dismissal of the Mafia is a masterpiece of defiant bluster – but this is a much nastier cusp of history than even he has ever realised. This film could only have been made in the transitional London of 1979, with Britain forced to choose between the US and Europe, between tradition and heartless progress.

Mackenzie captures the era with an unobtrusive but incisive eye for detail, and it’s harsh to criticise him for his ‘uninspired camerawork’ (Geoff Andrew in Time Out). A more charitable view would be to suggest that Mackenzie’s grimly businesslike approach is in total accord with the attitude of his central character, with visuals and editing are economic to the point of bluntness – although surely Harold wouldn’t approve of the confusing way the complicated plot is played out and explained.

Mackenzie’s approach isn’t devoid of the occasional flourish, and he even pulls off a Hitchcock trick late on when he shows us a lurking sniper. spying on a crucial confrontation. Whatever his shortcomings as a visual stylist, Mackenzie’s pacing is faultless – the incredible bottle-attack scene starts with an ominously long spell of silence during which Harold is seen pouring himself a drink on his boat, and, while the audience is still absorbing the ferocity of its conclusion, the scene is followed by a powerful image of Harold in the shower, his squat head and shoulders refracting through the steamed-up shower door. This is the specific moment at which you realise just how skilfully and powerfully you’ve been caught up by the energy of this actor, this character, and this remarkable film.

Neil Young
1st September 2000
seen 31st August at Arc cinema, Stockton, UK
tidy-up / rewrite Friday 6th April 2012

UK 1979 (first shown 1980) : 114 minutes : [23/28]