Director Bernard Rose takes a break from contemporising Russian literature, with his straight-ahead adaptation of Howard Marks' autobiography, MR NICE. The charm of Marks' story is that he stands against the cliché of the drug dealer typically seen in films. He doesn't grow up in a mean urban setting - he doesn't push drugs to survive - he isn't particularly flash - he doesn't do whores - he's faithful to his wife and kids - and he studiously avoids Class A drugs - both dealing them and taking them. In fact, he is rather more like a hero of an Ealing Comedy - stumbling into drug dealing quite by accident and permanently amused that he is getting away with it.
Marks was basically just another middle-class kid studying at Oxford and smoking hash when a mate asked him to do a favour and drive a car stuffed with drugs back from Germany. Marks was quite happy to quit teaching for easy money-making and soon hooked up with the Provos to bring his hash into UK airports without the inconvenience of customs checks. Before long he's got the biggest outfit in the UK and tries to crack America. Moreover, he's been recruited by his old college chum to be a spy in Kabul - after all, he moves in circles they can't penetrate! The first time he's busted for dealing he gets off on grounds so spurious he seems to be amazed, but he does eventually serve time - and not because of hubris, or narcissism, or betrayal - but basically because he was too bored to quit.
The film is charming and fun, and uses a deliberately lo-fi amateurish style, with live action footage digitally inserted into grainy old vintage footage of the 60s and 70s. Rhys Ifans is suitably bumbling and charming as Marks and he and Chloe Sevigny as his wife seem genuinely in love. I also love David Thewlis - who has just that edge of danger required to play the Provo, Jim McCann. The charm and the fun is entirely in keeping with Marks' carefully cultivated persona as Mr. Nice. Yes, that was his real alias, but he also wants to be seen as basically a good guy. To that end, this movie drips with family values, and to watch it, one would think that his wife and daughters never blamed him for one second for being absent from their lives. The film also refuses to question how far his involvement with the Provos was morally pretty nasty - after all, the dodgy money they were earning wasn't going into real estate, was it? And there is a deliberately cultivated equivocation about how far he ever really did any spying for the British.
So, MR NICE is basically a rather fawning film - frothy, light, charming, disposable. It doesn't get to grips with Howard Marks - but provides him with a yet another self-justificatory platform. Is that bad? Who knows. But there is something rather, well, distasteful in an international drug dealer who consorted with the IRA palming himself of as a charming rogue.
MR NICE is currently on release in the UK.