Mr Nice

 

Directed by Bernard Rose. Starring Rhys Ifans, Chloe Sevigny, Crispin Glover, David Thewlis, omid Djalili, Christian McKay. 18 cert, gen release, 121 min.

THERE ARE so many ways this project could have gone wrong. Indeed, even the greatest fans of Howard Mark’s Mr Nice (The Moon’s a Balloon of cannabis smuggling)would admit that a film version does not sound like a terrific idea.

Yes, that book is packed with incident. Marks, a son of the Welsh valleys, attended Oxford before embarking on a career that eventually saw him, according to some estimates, controlling 10 per cent of the world’s hashish market. Though Howard himself forswore violence, he managed to encounter a colourful array of dangerous customers, supping with renegade Irish Republicans and passing on the odd titbit to MI6. While in prison, he taught hoodlums to read and helped with their appeals.

Marks’s life was, indeed, a little too busy. Good luck packing all that into 120 minutes.

Then there is the perennial problem of making stoned people seem interesting to those who are not themselves under the influence. Only a few activities – computer programming, ditch digging, cheese making – seem quite so tedious when plastered on the big screen.

Happily (and adventurously), the producers thought to bring Bernard Rose, one of England’s most agreeably wilful directors (Candyman, Ivansxtc), onto the project, and he has delivered a film that is as peculiar as it is entertaining. His solution to the problem of binding the story together is a stylistic one.

Using (or, perhaps, faking) a variety of different stocks and media, Rose allows the image quality to change as the years progress. The early 1960s take place in black and white. The 1970s are blotchy and garish. The 1980s have an awful Miami sheen to them. As well as conveying the inexorable passage of time, the technique gets some sense of the hero’s permanent state of recreational dislocation.

Meanwhile, Rose draws impressively eccentric – rather than blearily deadened – performances from his strong cast. Too often misused in substandard material, Rhys Ifans is surprisingly moving in the title role. Omid Djalili is strong as Marks’s initial collaborator ,and David Thewlis is knee-slappingly hilarious as the Northern Republican who gets sucked into Marks’s schemes.

The end result is a delightful combination of art-house epic and Carry on Cannabis.