A highwaymen's romp
Plunkett and Macleane
Directed by Jake Scott
Screening from May 20 in major cinemas
Review by Jonathan Strauss
The production notes for Plunkett and MacLeane describe it as "the quintessential buddy movie ... a hybrid classic costume drama and a high velocity action adventure". That's accurate; the movie applies much of the contemporary "formula" for such movies, if in the new setting of highwaymen's life in mid-18th century England.
Will Plunkett (played by Robert Carlyle) and James MacLeane (Jonny Lee Miller) are the highwaymen. Plunkett is a former apothecary, with brains, a bag of tricks and the dream of escaping poverty in the North American colonies. MacLeane is a dumb but dashing ex-captain with even less money than good sense.
After a dramatic meeting, Plunkett and MacLeane form a "gentlemen's agreement" in which MacLeane gathers information through his wealthy contacts so the two can pull off the most effective heists.
MacLeane attracts and reciprocates the attention of Rebecca Gibson (Liv Tyler), the forthright and independently minded niece of the Lord Chief Justice (Michael Gambon). Unfortunately, the two highwaymen and Gibson have also attracted the attention of the "Thief-taker General" Chance (Ken Stott).
From there the story and characters are familiar. The two highwaymen have their moments of comic friction. MacLeane's charming manners win him the name of "Gentleman Highwayman", but Plunkett's actions prove him more caring and honourable than any "gentleman".
Gibson, while a crack shot with a pistol, does not appear in highwaymen's garb as depicted on some of the movie's publicity, and as the lead female character still has only a secondary role to the main male characters, for whom the movie is "almost like a love story, but without the sex", according to the director Jake Scott. Another character, the very camp Lord Rochester (Alan Cumming), MacLeanes friend, gets to show he is far from foppish.
Scenes reminded me (no great student of cinematography) of Bonnie and Clyde and Les Misérables, although by comparison the largely one-dimensional characters (the exception is Plunkett) in Plunkett and MacLeane stand exposed. Chance is as relentless in pursuit as Victor Hugo's Javaert in Les Misérables, but Javaert is in a way tragic, brought down by his inhumanly absolute commitment to "justice. Chance, on the other hand, is simply unrelentingly inhuman. In comparison with Les Misérables, Plunkett and MacLeane only scratches the surface of class antagonism.
Familiarity does not, however, breed contempt. Plunkett and MacLeane is engaging, grittily atmospheric and well-paced. Carlyle is perfect for his part.
The action-costume combination is sufficiently original to allow you to largely forget, while you're watching, that you've seen this before. And that, the entertaining escapism which makes you forget the real world, is the underlying success of the movie.