KING OF THIEVES
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Joe Penhall, based on an article published in The Guardian Magazine by Duncan Campbell.
Runtime: 108 mins.
Australian release date: 28 February 2019
Previewed at: Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 26 February 2019.
What a dream cast! Almost every venerable British male actor of mature years is in the cast of King Of Thieves, ‘the unbelievable true story of the Hutton Garden heist,’ as the film’s tagline puts it. Sir Michael Caine, Jim Broadbent, Tom Courtenay, Paul Whitehouse, Michael Gambon and Ray Winstone are the key players in James Marsh’s comedic, old school treatment of Joe Penhall’s story about the infamous 2015 jewellery robbery by a group of superannuated crims who just can’t say no to one last job. I half-expected Bill Nighy and Ben Kingsley to wander in - why not, everyone else is here. The only new blood in the line-up is Charlie Cox, who television viewers might know from the series Daredevil.
When a young criminal acquaintance, Basil (Cox) tells 77-year-old Brian Reader (Caine) that he’s got a key to the side-door of the security vault building in Hatton Garden, the centre of London’s diamond cutting and dealing industry, Reader puts together a crew to knock it off over the Easter long weekend of 2015. It’s a long and highly complex job that involves entering an adjacent room through a lift-well, drilling through a thick concrete wall and using a jack to push over stainless-steel cabinets. As the weekend progresses, the industrial jack they’re using breaks down so, incredibly, they all decide to go home for the night, pick up a replacement jack and return the following day. While apart, back-stabbing and gossipy speculation takes place between some of the gang members and they become increasingly distrustful of each other, resulting in Reader and Carl Wood (Whitehouse) refusing to return to the vault. Once the heist is successfully completed, more bastardry goes on and Basil is thrown out with only a ‘drink’ (a small pay-off), while the main spoils are divided between the remaining three. Without Reader’s fencing connections though, they’re out of their depth as to how to turn the vast haul of gold and diamonds into cold, hard cash, and they turn to Billy ‘the Fish’ Lincoln (Gambon), a hopeless drunk, for assistance. It’s a recipe made for disaster.
Director James Marsh is known for movies based on true events, such as Man On Wire and The Theory Of Everything, so he wasn’t a surprising choice when Working Title Films started thinking about King Of Thieves. He says, “I thought it would be an interesting challenge for a film maker like me who is usually drawn to darker areas of filmmaking. To do something that was a substantial character-driven comedy based on a true story was interesting to me. My background is documentaries, so I find true stories in themselves very inviting. Plus, the world was changing around us in a way that I didn’t particularly enjoy in 2016, when we started this project, and the idea of making a comedy as opposed to some dark, grim film felt really appealing.” Which is not to say that there isn’t darkness in the screenplay. After all, these were life-long, heavy-duty criminals, some of whom had a penchant for violence, although the script points out that they deliberately didn’t use any strong-arm tactics in the Hatton Garden job. Joe Penhall opines that, “The thing about a lot of villains is that they are not really socialized. The only thing they can do is that kind of crazy enterprise and they are not necessarily great at relationships, and what I really identified early on in the story is that, although they are all really great friends, they do turn on each other endlessly.”
It goes almost without saying that all the performances in King Of Thieves are note perfect, even if Michael Caine is even more Michael Caine-ish than usual; his Cockney accent is on steroids. There’s fun to be had here, and Jinx Godfrey’s and Nick Moore’s rapid-fire editing fills in the gaps where the details are glossed over - Marsh and Penhall concentrate more on the relationships between the men than the nuances of the robbery’s set-up. It is, after all, these human elements that brought the thieves undone after, as the sentencing judge put it, a “burglary [that] stands in a class of its own in the scale of the ambition, the detail of the planning, the level of preparation and the organisation of the team carrying it out, and in terms of the value of the property stolen.” James Marsh and his crew have pulled off a similarly successful job, albeit in cinematographic terms.