Awash in swirling overhead shots, stilted wide-angle framings and seemingly arbitrary switches to black-and-white stock and buoyed by a wall-to-wall Brit-pop soundtrack, Donal MacIntyre’s A Very British Gangster takes great pains to tart up its mildly intriguing subject matter, but its aesthetic overload finally proves more exhausting than illuminating. A portrait of charismatic Manchester gangster Dominic Noonan, MacIntyre’s film is at its best when it simply lets its subject speak, and even if his diction is mostly flat (no colorful gangsterspeak here), his delivery—marked by an appealing earnestness cut with occasional hints of violence—proves surprisingly endearing. A decidedly working-class gangster, Noonan spends much of his time settling domestic disputes for the lower-class citizens of Manchester, who prefer to seek his protection rather than call on the police; at least, that is, when he’s not too busy tackling his numerous legal issues (during the course of the film, he stands trial three times). We also get some sense of the structure of the organization with Noonan surrounding himself with a number of younger associates, several of whom have ambitions to take over his position, but, in MacIntyre’s superficial investigation, no coherent picture of either mob-dominated Manchester or the inner workings of the city’s notorious first family is allowed to emerge.
MacIntyre, who occasionally appears on screen interviewing Noonan, registers as a slightly unctuous presence, goading his subject into revealing the sordid details of his criminality only to deliver semi-outraged denunciations of his behavior in subsequent voiceovers. In fact, this desire to have it both ways, to play up the lurid details of Noonan’s career (without which there would be no film) and to then assume a position of moral superiority by invoking ironic distance, proves to be at the very heart of MacIntyre’s method. In one telling scene, the filmmaker questions Noonan about his sexual preferences, suggesting that his subject has a “hint of lavender” about him before asking him point blank if he’s gay. Noonan’s characteristic good humor and his comfort with his own homosexuality nicely deflect the director’s off-putting condescension, but MacIntyre comes off less as a probing interviewer and more like an arrogant tabloid TV commentator, especially since he fails to adequately follow up on any of the revelations he uncovers. This contentment with superficial disclosure coupled with the attempt to mask this superficiality with crude aesthetic razzamatazz finally nullifies whatever interest MacIntyre’s subject may have initially held.