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Accidental Birth of an Anarchist

Mr. Nice (2010)

Internationales Filmfest Oldenburg

"How can you declare war on plants," muses Howard Marks, having become the biggest marijuana dealer in 1980s Britain without really trying and found himself squarely in the law's crosshair. "Ineffectually" turns out to be the answer, even when fighting someone born to be mild. Played by Rhys Ifans in full shaggy-dog mode in Bernard Rose's loose but very smart biopic "Mr. Nice," Mr. Marks appears to be as unhardened a criminal as they come, an amiable loafer who drifts into dope at Oxford University and never drifts out again.

A lot of other people in "Mr. Nice" are amiable too. A plummy-voiced gentleman from MI6 recruits Mr. Marks to keep tabs on his drug connections, most of whom are genially disorganized Arabs. Some nice bankers welcome Mr. Marks's drug money with open arms and practically throw him a party, while the British police pursue him with all the efficiency of the Keystone Kops. I.R.A. soldier Jim McCann (David Thewlis) isn't so amiable, but makes up for it by being a manic ball of confusion with a hair-trigger temper and a taste for bestiality porn. In Mr. Marks's world, the only people the terrorists will be blowing to bits are themselves. Seemingly all set to recline in bathtubs full of cash forever, Mr. Marks only comes a cropper when he rashly tries to break into the American market and comes up against a legal system that can shoot straight.

Mr. Rose has a knack for getting under the skin of men in turmoil, as one look into Danny Huston's eyes in "The Kreutzer Sonata" makes plain. But "Mr. Nice" plays the game a different way, giving naturalism a wide berth and instead balancing precariously between farce and fable. The result is less edgy, but no less wired. After raiding the nation's film archives, Mr. Rose pastes Mr. Marks into grainy period footage of Piccadilly and Knightsbridge without worrying too much about hiding the joins, turning Britain and large parts of the rest of the world into blatant process shots. Behold late-'70s Britain, a land so spooked by what's brewing in the aftermath of the permissive society that even the matte lines are jittery, while Philip Glass provides the mood music.

Opting not to come down on the hashish trade like a ton of bricks leaves Mr. Rose open to some possible scorn, but the film is more interested in the well-polished self-image and unshakeable self-esteem of Mr. Marks. It also happens to be at least as interested in Britain's film trade as its drug trade. Squint a bit and Mr. Marks resembles David Warner in his mid-'70s pomp, at which point all those process shots make sense. The best bits of "Mr. Nice" are the ones where it reaches back towards wry mash-ups such as Mike Hodges's "Pulp," a fine tradition to plug into and one the domestic industry should channel more often. The sight of Chloë Sevigny and Elsa Pataky drifting dreamily along the corridors of Oxford is less about the unfortunate Mmes. Marks and more about the vibe of international It Girls appearing in vintage British films, cast by directors who appreciated the hint of static interference they brought with them. One old master of that static even turns up in person: Ken Russell swings jovially by, in a cameo that's barely more than a wave towards Mr. Ifans. He might as well have been waiving to the audience.


Opens on June 3 in Manhattan.

Written and directed by Bernard Rose, based on the book by Howard Marks; director of photography, Mr. Rose; edited by Mr. Rose and Teresa Font; music by Philip Glass; production design by Max Gottlieb; costumes by Caroline Harris; produced by Luc Roeg; released by MPI Media Group. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. This film is not rated.

WITH: Rhys Ifans (Howard Marks), Chloë Sevigny (Judy Marks), David Thewlis (Jim McCann), Luis Tosár (Craig Lovato), Crispin Glover (Ernie Combs), Omid Djalili (Saleem Malik), Christian McKay (Hamilton McMillan), Elsa Pataky (Ilze), Jamie Harris (Patrick Lane) and Jack Huston (Graham Plinston).


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