Film review – King of Thieves

Suzanne Frost

"The problem with gold is its effect on people", states Brian Reader, the ‘Guvnor’, one of the most famous jewel thieves in the country in his younger years, right at the beginning of the film, summing up what follows pretty well. Reader is 77 when we meet him, enjoying the finer things in life - dinners, drinks and jazz clubs with his wife, who reminds him to stay on the straight and narrow. When Brian becomes a widower, unable to bare the silence in his empty home, temptation hits in the shape of his old gang of master thieves attending the wake. Together, the grandpa gangsters plot an unprecedented burglary at the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit, employing their old-school thieving skills to plan the heist over the Easter holiday weekend. They manage to escape with allegedly over £200 million worth of stolen jewels and money.

King of Thieves (c) Studiocanal

The true story of the spectacular Hatton Garden diamond heist, the biggest and most daring in British history, is perfect material for a film. The investigation captured the country back then and the more details emerged – the cheek of it, the nerve, the sheer scale of planning along with the age of the felons – it is a story that only life could write.

King of Thieves is a comedy rooted in reality. Director James Marsh, who won an Oscar for Man On A Wire, is a documentary director and made a career out of bringing true stories to the screen. On board as well was Duncan Campbell, the Guardian’s chief crime correspondent, who had been shadowing the real Brian Reader all his life and  had access to the actual transcripts from the investigation. “I read this document, that was about 100 pages thick, and it just read like a play”, says Marsh. They got playwright Joe Penhall, a “man of the theatre” on board to hone the dialogue into a screenplay brimming with humour. It is a proper London story – a gang of old cockney geezers, all matey and jokey, but inherently distrustful of each other, rowing over how to share the goods.

King of Thieves (c) Studiocanal

The collection of characters proofed a godsend for actors to sink their teeth into and so it is no surprise that a stellar cast of screen legends signed up to portray the group of elderly misfits. Sir Michael Caine got on board before even a word of script was written. He embodies the gentleman thief Brain Reader, his youthful joy at mischief made, his grandeur rooted in flashbacks to his youth when he was as close to a superstar as a thief may come – but also a sense of danger. Cain’s face can switch from big toothy grin to a readiness for violence within seconds.

King of Thieves (c) Studiocanal

Completing the gang are Jim Broadbent as Terry, the most menacing and dangerous of the group, Sir Tom Courtenay as thick Kenny, who pulls most of the comedy from his hearing aid; Ray Winstone plays the unconventional criminal Danny Jones and a near- unrecognizable Sir Michael Gambon, globally beloved Professor Dumbledore, joins the villains as hapless, insane ‘Billy the Fish’ with a bladder problem. Charlie Cox, a generation away from the other thieves, plays Basil, the mysterious unidentified accomplice who got away.

King of Thieves (c) Studiocanal

Much of the comedy is drawn from the ageing men discussing their diabetes, pills and arthritis while drilling holes into vaults and disabling alarms. It is a nostalgic, old fashioned kind of crime the old villains pull off, hands-on, meticulously planned, well executed – yet they are haplessly ignorant of the modern world, unaware of CCTV cameras, the internet, modern investigation methods. Once the police are on to them, tapping their cars with sophisticated devices and modern technology, recording their conversations, they fall blindly into every trap.

Still, you can’t help but root for the old rogues. It is a proper London story, a classic underdog story told with humour and empathy, a twinkle in the eye – but also not shying away from the ugliness of the backstabbing criminals. They are not just cheeky chappies. But nobody got hurt and with a jazzy soundtrack, speedy storytelling and a frankly inspired use of the Sugar Plum Fairy dance for a break-in montage, this is a crime story you are allowed to like.
King of Thieves opens in UK cinemas on 4 September.


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