Saturday, November 10, 2018

Highwaymen in Shiny Coats

Why aren't there more movies based on picaresques? In 1999, Ridley Scott's son Jake Scott attempted to bring the original "loveable rogue" genre to film with Plunkett & Macleane, an original story but set in the same year my favourite picaresque, Roderick Random, was published, 1748. It bears many similarities to Roderick Random--it centres a man who can pass as a gentleman who borrows money from his servant so he can furnish himself with the clothing and lifestyle of a gentleman in order to woo a wealthy woman, a plot that occupies about 15% of Roderick Random. But Plunkett & Macleane is too moral to be a genuine picaresque and inserts a distinctively Hollywood love story arc. Still, it's an entertaining film despite some unfortunate cinematography. Stars Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, and Liv Tyler seem to be having a good time and they're fun to watch.

There are a couple of shots that seem to be borrowed directly from Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of a picaresque by Thackeray. I only wish Jake Scott and his cinematographer, John Mathieson, had borrowed more from Kubrick. I don't expect the movie to have Kubrick's painstaking representation of candle lighting but Plunkett & Macleane is so unnaturally dark at times it's frustrating; often I found myself struggling to make out facial expressions on characters I really didn't think were meant to be obscured.

Macleane (Jonny Lee Miller) begins the film in a very dark prison with a flood lit exterior. A confusing escape by a couple thieves nearby ends with one thief dead and the other, Plunkett, more or less befriending Macleane. They're sent to Newgate prison together, a location familiar to fans of Moll Flanders, another great picaresque.

Macleane improbably secures their release with the help of a ruby Plunkett had ingested and the two launch their scheme, utilising Plunkett's stolen capital.

Party scenes feature too many closeups and, with the lighting, frustrated me in my desire to have a good look at full rooms and crowds, but maybe this was a reflection of the low budget. Macleane's one successful attempt to seduce a wealthy woman ends up in failure and no profit so the two soon take to highway robbery. Then Lady Rebecca Gibson (Liv Tyler) steals Macleane's heart, ruining everything, as far as Plunkett's concerned, and there's tension as to whether Plunkett will leave for America without Macleane.

Tyler is good in a simple supporting role--she looks fantastic in the period attire. Her father, played by Michael Gambon, is a nicely pusillanimous politician. Alan Cumming steals scenes as Lord Rochester, Macleane's friend, an amalgam of charismatic and witty picaresque fops like Roderick Random's friends Banter and Wagtail.

The last act of the film is a bit disappointing with a somewhat standard climax and the film's villain (Ken Stott) never comes off as convincingly motivated. But in all, the film's a nice bit of rogue fantasy.

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