The Long Good Friday April 29, 2021
P. H. Moriarty
1 Hr., 54 Mins.
hen powerful London gangster boss Harold Shand (a never-better Bob Hoskins) comes home from a New York business trip at the beginning of The Long Good Friday (1980), his loyal right-hand man, Jeff (Derek Thompson), assures him that everything is just fine — no different from when he left. Harold has good reason to believe it. Business has been in a steady state of “just fine” over the last
decade. It’s been all “calm and no trouble,” with only periodic, methodical deployments of violence. But Jeff has rendered this painting simplistically, Harold later discovers. In the course of the Easter weekend during which the film is set, another one of Harold’s trusted associates, Colin (Paul Freeman), gets knifed to death in his gym’s locker room. Around the same time, one of Harold’s cars — tasked with transporting his zealously religious mom to and from church — is rigged with a bomb and explodes. (Mother Shand only narrowly skirts death: the doomed chauffeur decides to start the car before the service ends so that it’s ready for his client.) A little while later, Harold and his superiorly calm girlfriend-slash-most-trusted professional partner, Victoria (Helen Mirren), pull up to one of their most-frequented pubs. Before they can park the car, they watch in horror as it’s blown to smithereens. Almost casually, another employee tells Harold shortly afterward that he found a bomb in another one of his properties — a casino — but it didn’t detonate.
This can’t be happening. Harold, whose “corporation” has its hands comfortably resting on the backs of local police and politicians, feels not unreasonably like he and his organization are at their strongest when we first meet him. He’s in the process of forging a major deal with the American Mafia (represented by an intimidatingly stoic Eddie Constantine) to redevelop London's Docklands. Harold is envisioning a new London — a place en route to becoming Europe’s capital, in fact — and it needs, he believes, proven people with nerve, knowledge, and expertise. In other words, London needs Harold and his corporation. “I’m not a politician: I’m a businessman with a sense of history, and I’m also a Londoner,” he says of himself. Why must he start being undercut now? He doesn’t know who could be trying to impair him. When someone asks who he thinks might be trying to take him on, Harold instantaneously thinks of a few names. Then he realizes that everyone coming to mind is dead — killed ostensibly at his hands. What he knows for sure is that this is the work of a maniac. “I’ll have his carcass dripping blood by midnight,” Harold predicts.
But that confidence, which loses its intensity around the time he breaks a wine glass with his bare hands upon receiving bad news on the phone early in the weekend, steadily disintegrates in The Long Good Friday. Harold, who visually calls to mind a smart-suited anthropomorphic English bulldog, realizes just how much it’s eroded when, in one later scene, where Victoria tells him something unnerving, he shoves her and immediately regrets it. (He would never hurt the woman he loves — or so he thought.) “What’s happening to me?” he asks rhetorically. We will know precisely what is happening to Harold circumstantially by the end of the film. (The film has been rightfully praised as a sort of “state of London” drama, using Harold’s plight as a conduit to look at larger societal shifts.) But most fascinating in the movie is the question’s psychological component — how this unexpected (and freakishly fast) loss of power affects a man who has spent most of his adult life having it in abundance. He probably can’t think of the last time before this weekend he spent a day worrying about if he could lose his tight grip on his world.
John Mackenzie’s direction is perfectly austere; early on he depends on a jumbled, achronological storytelling style to rouse unease. (It’s worked its unsettling magic by the time conventional structuring takes over.) We believe in his recreations of this London criminal milieu. When something particularly nasty happens it strikes us like a lion tearing up a gazelle in a nature documentary. The violence is unbearably ugly, but it’s also an inextricable part of the world we’re intruding on. It’s a just-right kind of unbearable, and when in a later scene Harold audaciously kidnaps and then ties up possible traitors upside down at a meat factory, it feels like but another day of business.
Hoskins, masterful, manages to make us care about a man who is for all intents and purposes ruthless and blackhearted. This lies, I think, in how naturally he suits the film’s tragicomic flavor. He perceptively locates and then expands on a persuasive amount of vulnerability and self-consciousness. Hoskins convincingly conveys what those qualities would look like in a man who hasn’t felt them this strongly since probably the days when he was still on the up and up, climbing to the top without thinking about anything besides his aspirations.
Mirren is a great foil. Her Victoria makes for a dependable splash of cold water when Hoskins’ simmering threatens to boil over. After Harold kills someone in anger, Victoria slaps him; then she placidly maps out how he can use this death as leverage. She’s so smooth and competent that we think about how she could capably succeed him if the opportunity came. But as The Long Good Friday’s terrifically-realized gloomy final moments show (they’re like a kick in the pants), it doesn’t matter how competent someone seems in an authoritative position in this milieu. The moment you’re caught off guard by an unfathomably bigger force, it’s unthinkably hard — more impossible — to find your footing again. When the ill-fated Harold realizes this, he smiles and smiles. Failure has a sour taste. “Is there no decency in this disgusting world?” Harold asks partway through the movie. He’ll have a definitive answer by its end. A