The Long Good Friday + Mona Lisa (Blu-ray)
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Review of "The Long Good Friday + Mona Lisa (Blu-ray)"
This is a limited edition blu-ray and DVD boxset from Arrow Video, currently around £40 on amazon. That seems a bit steep for two films.The set collects the two best known British films starring much-loved actor Bob Hoskins, both of which will likely get single releases later. It also has some exclusive extras.
The Long Good Friday (1980)
Brutish London gangster Harold Shand has a plan for a huge building project in London’s Docklands (then a fairly derelict, poor area, what with the shipping having dried up). He is all set to secure co-funding from the American mob. But things start to go violently wrong – bombs and murders soon have Harold on the back foot.This is an odd film, but it works. It was unclear when they made it whether it would be released in cinemas or be shown on TV, and it does have a slight 70s TV feel to it. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and some of the line delivery is frankly odd, even from actors as good as Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren.
Harold is an amazing creation – eerily prescient of the kind of wideboys who’d turn London into such a cesspool of inequality in the coming decades. He’s nationalist and racist, an impulsive thug with big plans – but somehow weirdly likable in spite of everything. The Docklands redevelopment he’s trying to get off the ground eventually happened for real, as the washed-up old London ports were turned into banking skyscrapers and overpriced housing.Hoskins is great, but he’s also vaguely comical. I assume this was intentional – he’s not really scary at any point. He does the seething anger thing that gangster actors often do, but compare his performance here to James Gandolfini in The Sopranos – Hoskins lacks the menace, the danger. Olly Reed in Sitting Target was twice as scary as Hoskins is here. Having him be a less impressive gangster kind of fits the story, though – he’s the baddest of the London gangsters, but as soon as more capable gangs show up from elsewhere, he’s in big trouble.
Hoskins has able backup from Helen Mirren as his posh wife, obviously in their relationship for the money. You can imagine Harold marrying her for her looks and then gradually realising that she’s smarter than him. His ambitious young henchman is played by Derek Thompson (Charlie out of Casualty), who has the same weird line delivery as everyone else, but is still pretty good. Eddie Constantine is perhaps a bit too genteel as the American boss, but the rest of the cast are very good, and feature loads of familiar faces from British TV and movies. Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark is in there, as are Jacko from Brush Strokes, Gillian Taylforth, and a juvenile delinquent Dexter Fletcher. Piers Brosnan makes his film debut as a young killer.The almost-sitcom cast is appropriate, as this kind of plays like one at times. Harold and his mob have to try to keep the Americans from finding out about the problems that bedevil them, including finding an excuse for a pub that blows up right in front of them. There is violence in the film, some of it very nasty, but it’s never too rough to watch, there’s nothing to make you flinch. Even the scene set in a meat storeroom (nothing says ‘gangster’ like hanging out among dangling pig carcases) suffers by comparison to a scene in Goodfellas. The violence is only a step up from The Sweeney.
It’s a great London film, travelling far and wide through the capital (it’s a mark of how much things have changed that Hoskins seems to think some very desirable terraced houses in Brixton are not fit for habitation, although that might just be racism). It tries to show the grim and gritty alongside the more glamorous side of London, but kind of fumbles the glamour, leaving an impression of a city that’s seen better days and wants to be more than it is – not a bad description at the time the film was made.The music – a lot of it synthesizer driven – sometimes made me think more of Italian zombie films than cockney gangsters, although the main them has a cop-show feel. The film is somehow more than the sum of its parts, more entertaining than it feels like it should be, and anchored by some good, if slightly odd performances.
The Long Good Friday on Blu-ray is a huge step up from any previous version. In the past it’s tended to look like a TV movie – now it looks like a proper film. The image is clear and shows a lot of fine detail, while still looking like a film – Arrow have got very good at making films like this shine. Even on DVD this film tended to look a bit shabby – now it looks great.The making-of was made for an older release, so happily features plenty of interview footage with Hoskins and director John Mackenzie, who have both died since. There is a lot more Pierce Brosnan than his very small part in the film really deserves, but hey, I guess he was more famous than most other participants by then. Some more recent interviews round off the disk.
Mona Lisa (1986)
Mona Lisa has aged a bit less well than The Long Good Friday, although as a project that dripped with rather self-conscious prestige, it was never aiming for the same kind of cult following. (Neil Jordan was an artier director, I guess.) It was never adopted by lad culture with the same enthusiasm as Long Good Friday, perhaps because it depicts prostitution as it actually is, and consequently isn’t much fun.George is fresh out of prison. Rejected by his angry ex-wife, he turns to his old mobster colleagues for work. He ends up as chauffeur and sort-of bodyguard to a high class call girl, Simone. After the obligatory 20-minute ‘hating each other’ sequence, they form a bond, and George agrees to help Simone find her friend: a much younger, more vulnerable girl who is working for a violent pimp.
It’s a very different beast to Long Good Friday. The violence in Mona Lisa, when it comes, is more realistic and has more impact. The world it explores – of relentlessly downbeat, seedy sex clubs and routine physical abuse – is uniquely depressing, and rings absolutely true. Simone has escaped up to a point – the most danger she has to contend with is unfriendly hotel managers – but she still has to sell herself to grotesque old men, and has a past that you can tell is going to catch up with her.Aspects of the film work brilliantly. The evocation of Soho vice clubs, the down-at-heel nastiness of the brothels, the hellish scenes on the streets of King’s Cross, teeming with streetwalkers and kerb crawlers, are authentically grim. Other aspects, sadly, place it firmly in the 80s. The portentous string music is heavy-handed and doesn’t evoke mood nearly as well as it thinks it does, and whoever decided to set the ‘George visiting sex clubs’ montage to a Genesis song wants shooting.
The best thing about it is Bob Hoskins’s performance as George. He’s a bit of a fool, and perhaps slightly too naïve for someone who’s just spent seven years in prison. He has a romantic streak (he plays the song Mona Lisa by Nat King Cole obsessively) which allows him to read too much into his relationship with Simone. But he’s also got a violent streak bubbling just under the surface. He’s visibly shocked that some of the prostitutes he encounters are the same age as his daughter (although he never really questions prostitution per se – Simone’s contempt for his attitude towards her work is brilliant. The film shows the audience how vile the world she and other prostitutes inhabits is, but also perfectly nails the wilful blindness of men like George to the nasty realities). It’s a beautiful, touching performance from Hoskins. Along with Pennies From Heaven, it’s his best work.Cathy Tyson is also superb as the whore-with-a-heart-of-ice Simone. Although her friendship with George seems genuine, she’s learned to use men as mercilessly as they use her. I don’t understand why she didn’t go on to become a much bigger star on the back of this – she deserved to. Michael Caine is very effective in a small part as Hoskins’s unpleasant boss. Robbie Coltrane is kind of annoying as George’s wacky friend, but that’s the part rather than the actor – the 80s had far too many ‘wacky friend’ roles cluttering up otherwise decent movies.
It’s also fantastic for London footage – some of the King’s Cross scenes were filmed nearer to Liverpool Street, but the Soho stuff is definitely the real location. At one point Hoskins drives past the theatre playing Guys and Dolls, a production he was in when it first opened. It’s a very effective drama, and it still packs a punch, but it’s probably more interesting for the details of old London – including the seediness of Soho back then – than it is for the story.
Blu-rayI’m not as familiar with what this movie looked like before it was restored for Blu-ray, so I can’t say how much of an improvement it is – I’m guessing quite a big one. Like Long Good Friday, this looks extremely impressive – cheap 80s films tend to look a bit washed out, but this a pleasing texture and excellent visible detail. A lot of the film takes place at night, and it doesn’t lose detail as the picture gets darker. It looks great.
There are various interviews, including with Neil Jordan, the director. There’s also a commentary by Jordan (he describes Robbie Coltrane as ‘English’). It has the odd interjection from Hoskins, but these are obviously snippets from interviews with him about the film, rather than a real commentary, and he’s clearly not interacting with Jordan. I always feel a bit cheated by stitched together commentaries.
Extras diskThe set contains an exclusive disk of Long Good Friday extras and a quite chunky book. The book has appraisals of each film and more ‘making of’ pieces – it’s decent. The extras disk contains more interviews, including old footage of Hoskins and Mackenzie doing a Q&A at a screening of the film. It’s all a bit samey after a while.
The real reason I bought this set, rather than just waiting for a single-film edition of Long Good Friday, was that it contains the notorious farm safety film Apaches, made in 1977 to scare children into not messing around on farms. It was directed by John Mackenzie, hence its inclusion here.This film has a legendary status – it is reputed to have traumatised a generation of rural children. Six kids are playing on a farm (they’re playing at being Red Indians at the start, hence ‘Apaches’) – they basically all die stupid deaths because they ignore common-sense health and safety rules.
It’s not as traumatising as I was hoping, but it is pretty strong – the deaths are nasty, and while there’s no gore, they’re genuinely hard-hitting (the screams of the poisoned child, especially, are horrible). There’s also real suspense – you’re left cringing, wondering which ill-advised leap into a bale of hay will result in the next gruesome fatality. In fact, the film toys with us, setting up things that seem sure to kill someone, but then having them scamper out of danger at the last moment. The problem with this approach is that you start trying to second-guess what will happen to the kids – who are shouty and slightly annoying – and thus it becomes more about the viewer trying to outwit the filmmaker, which probably robs it of some of its educational potential.After every death we see the dead child’s things being packed away by impassive teachers or parents – they all seem very stoical about it. And I hope the farmhands got a great deal of counselling after running over kids in tractors and all the rest. (To be honest, at least two of the deaths are very much the fault of adults – I hope there was an adult equivalent film about not letting children have a go on your tractor unattended on a hill near a cliff…) I was a little disappointed that no one got gored to death by a bull, or eaten alive by pigs. But it’s certainly one of the harder-hitting public information films I’ve seen.
The picture quality on Apaches is a bit ropey – this is a film that did the rounds of schools, and probably a pristine copy doesn’t exist. It looks more than decent, but there are quite a few scratches and there is very heavy grain. That all adds to its ambience.Long Good Friday is a very enjoyable film that I’ll definitely watch again. The same goes for Apaches. Mona Lisa is a good film, but probably less essential. If you’re willing to forego the farm safety movie, you might as well just buy the single-film version of Long Good Friday when it comes out. Either way, both the main features are presented extremely well.
Product Information : The Long Good Friday + Mona Lisa (Blu-ray)
Manufacturer's product description
Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Hoskins, Bob
DVD Region: Blu-ray
Director(s) (Last name, First name): Mackenzie, John
Video Category: Feature Film
Actor(s): Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren, Dave King, Pierce Brosnan, Cathy Tyson
Classification: 18 years and over
Listed on Ciao since: 27/05/2015