COPS AND CLICHES

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

IT was known as the English cosy school of de­tec­tive fic­tion — per­fected by the likes of Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. The po­lice were in­vari­ably po­lite, con­sci­en­tious and in­cor­rupt­ible, and their equiv­a­lent could be seen in the po­lice dra­mas in the early years of Bri­tish tele­vi­sion. I have warm mem­o­ries of Dixon of Dock Green, a long-run­ning TV se­ries from the 1950s in which an avun­cu­lar Lon­don bobby (played by Jack Warner) be­gan each episode with a salute to the au­di­ence and a friendly ‘‘ Evening all’’. It wasn’t un­til Z Cars in the 60s that the vogue for tough, real­is­tic po­lice drama took hold on Bri­tish TV, fol­lowed in the 80s and 90s by The Bill, per­haps the most suc­cess­ful po­lice pro­ce­dural of them all.

Bri­tish cop movies un­der­went a sim­i­lar tran­si­tion. Who re­mem­bers The Blue Lamp (1950), the first Bri­tish film made with the co­op­er­a­tion of the Lon­don Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice, which lent sta­tions and pa­trol cars to the film­mak­ers and even some of its of­fi­cers for small roles? The cops in those days could do no wrong. In an un­likely plot, po­lice and un­der­world fig­ures joined forces to catch a neu­rotic young spiv (Dirk Bog­a­rde) who had killed a po­lice­man. But it wasn’t long be­fore Bri­tish po­lice thrillers got down and dirty. The film­mak­ers seemed de­ter­mined to prove they could make cop and gang­ster films as ugly and vi­o­lent as any­thing coming out of Hol­ly­wood. Michael Caine played a vi­cious hit man in Get Carter — a ground­break­ing work — and there’s a scene in the 1972 Sid­ney Lumet film The Of­fence in which Sean Con­nery, play­ing a frus­trated cop, beats a sus­pect to death.

The Sweeney, di­rected by Nick Love, with a screen­play by John Hodge (who wrote those two low-life clas­sics Trainspot­ting and Shal­low Grave), is based on the 70s TV se­ries of the same name. And, need­less to say, it be­longs in the blood-and-guts school of Bri­tish po­lice drama. De­tec­tive In­spec­tor Jack Re­gan (Ray Win­stone) is an an­gry cop in the Dirty Harry tra­di­tion, not averse to break­ing rules to get his man. What sort of rules? Well, mi­nor ones against pur­loin­ing stolen goods, brib­ing in­form­ers with the pro­ceeds of rob­beries and car­ry­ing on an af­fair with a po­lice col­league (Hay­ley Atwell), the wife of a se­nior of­fi­cer. Re­gan’s out­fit the Sweeney (Sweeney Todd be­ing rhyming slang for Fly­ing Squad) likes to get to the scene of a crime be­fore the bad guys have got away. This usu­ally en­tails reck­less driv­ing through pub­lic streets and the in­dis­crim­i­nate use of firearms in pub­lic places. Af­ter a slam-bang ac­tion open­ing se­quence in a ware­house, where bul­lion rob­bers are caught load­ing gold in­gots into a van, we move to a slam-bang sex scene in a po­lice toi­let. We’re a long way from Dixon of Dock Green.

Win­stone, fa­mil­iar in English hard-guy roles, is a well cast as Re­gan, but his char­ac­ter feels empty and of­fen­sive. He’s your typ­i­cal ruth­less bully-cop, foul-mouthed and bel­liger­ent, with an equally dis­agree­able young side­kick, De­tec­tive Sergeant Ge­orge Carter (Ben Drew). Be­tween them they cause more may­hem, with at­ten­dant threats to life and limb, than the crims they are chas­ing. Re­gan also has made an en­emy of De­tec­tive Ivan Lewis (Steven Mack­in­tosh), the head of in­ter­nal af­fairs, who sus­pects him of shady tac­tics and bears a per­sonal grudge as well. I think we are meant to de­spise Lewis as a cold and vin­dic­tive creep, but he be­haves a good deal more hon­ourably than Jack Re­gan.

The vi­o­lence is well or­ches­trated in the well-oiled, well-edited man­ner of the mod­ern ac­tion film, but the car chases look pretty rou­tine and sus­pense se­quences set in un­der­ground carparks are surely a movie cliche. The cli­mac­tic shootout in Trafal­gar Square, in­volv­ing more bul­lets than Django Un­chained,

de­stroys any sem­blance of the gritty re­al­ism for which Love may have been striv­ing. Af­ter wreak­ing havoc on var­i­ous pub­lic mon­u­ments, the gun­fire moves in­doors. Where are we now? The Na­tional Gallery? This se­date, book-lined cham­ber must be the read­ing room at White’s, the gen­tle­men’s club, whose shelves and walls take a bat­ter­ing. We know it’s White’s be­cause it gets a men­tion in the cred­its. I wish I could say the in­clu­sion of a scene in a gen­tle­men’s

club raises The Sweeney’s tone. No such luck. It’s a silly, nasty film.

RO­MAN Polan­ski: A Film Mem­oir is an ad­mir­ing doc­u­men­tary about the great Pol­ish film­maker who gave us mas­ter­pieces such as

Chi­na­town, Rose­mary’s Baby and The Pi­anist. Most of it con­sists of a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Polan­ski and his old friend and former pro­ducer An­drew Brauns­berg, con­ducted across a ta­ble in a house near Zurich where, for seven months in 2009, Polan­ski was held un­der house ar­rest by the Swiss au­thor­i­ties. Di­rected by Lau­rent Bouzereau, it is an en­joy­able and well-crafted film that man­ages to tell us lit­tle we didn’t know. Polan­ski has been the sub­ject of at least three bi­ogra­phies and pub­lished his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Ro­man, in 1984. Those look­ing for fresh rev­e­la­tions and scan­dalous con­fes­sions may be dis­ap­pointed.

But the film is worth see­ing for its in­sights into Polan­ski’s per­son­al­ity and his at­ti­tudes to film mak­ing. (It is sur­pris­ing to be told, for ex­am­ple, that he dis­liked Re­pul­sion, the psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror film that made his name in Bri­tain in 1965.) Brauns­berg’s in­ter­view, sup­ple­mented by archival footage and clips from the films, takes us through Polan­ski’s child­hood in the War­saw ghetto, the loss of his mother in the Holo­caust, the grisly mur­der in 1969 of his wife, Sharon Tate, by fol­low­ers of Charles Man­son, his ar­rest in Los An­ge­les in 1977 on a charge of hav­ing un­law­ful sex with a 13-year-old girl (to which he pleaded guilty), and his flight to Europe to avoid sen­tenc­ing by a US judge. And I must say that for one whose life has been scarred by much an­guish and tragedy, the 79-year-old Polan­ski looks re­mark­ably re­laxed be­fore the cam­era — his face fresh and un­lined, his voice firm, his eyes alert and clear.

But it is hard to warm to him. One senses no gen­uine con­tri­tion for his crime and, as if to re­lieve him of any sense of guilt, Bouzereau in­cludes a clip from the vic­tim of the 1977 as­sault, who of­fers her for­give­ness (and in­deed pleaded in the Swiss courts against Polan­ski’s ex­tra­di­tion to the US, a re­quest granted in 2010). The best parts of the film deal with his rec­ol­lec­tions of the Holo­caust and his ex­pe­ri­ences as a small boy in Europe af­ter the war. He be­came fas­ci­nated with the cin­ema while watch­ing Ger­man B-grade movies and taught him­self to read by fol­low­ing the sub­ti­tles on for­eign films. How much of his ex­pe­ri­ence shaped the ag­o­nies de­picted in his work isn’t clear and Brauns­berg never probes for a con­nec­tion. But we can draw our own con­clu­sions.

Polan­ski is on record as say­ing: ‘‘ Noth­ing is too shock­ing for me. When you tell the story of a man who loses his head, you have to show the head be­ing cut off. Oth­er­wise it’s just a dirty joke with­out a punch­line.’’ This seems to me a very du­bi­ous propo­si­tion, and I can’t re­mem­ber a Polan­ski film in which some­one’s head is cut off, un­less it was his blood­thirsty ver­sion of Macbeth in 1971.

His last film was the black com­edy Car­nage, made with Jodie Fos­ter and Kate Winslet in 2011. One would have liked some in­ci­sive ques­tion­ing on what new projects might at­tract him. As he tells his in­ter­viewer, he’s ea­ger to be back at work and mak­ing films is his one joy in life. How odd that so few of his films con­vey a sense of life’s joy.

He once said: ‘‘ I know in my heart of hearts that the spirit of laugh­ter has de­serted me.’’ No doubt he was right.

The Sweeney

Ray Win­stone and Ben Drew in

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