Howard Marks was an impossibly romantic Robin Hood like-figure, in my youth. He was the drug dealer of choice to the intelligentsia and the beautiful people of Oxford and London. He had class and charm. The people I knew who did know him bragged about their friendship, seeing him as a modern day pirate working for the good guys against the bad establishment. Honest, that’s how it was in 1972. Just say no was decades away.
I never met him. I almost did about ten times, because he would be at parties I attended. I saw him across smoke-filled rooms a couple of times, surrounded by impossibly glamorous women and men. The buzz made it clear people were in awe of his excellent mind, sense of humour and business savvy, All these lifted the rather grubby image of dealing drugs because Howard had something exclusive and above it all about him.
Therefore, I was really looking forward to this movie. The first half hour is a real treat, with an astonishing sweep of rural Wales, Oxford and the prettiest bits of London.
Then, oddly, the film goes flat. I have been trying to figure out why. My theory is that the endless minutiae of drug dealing, arrangements with the IRA and MI6 and even marriage and kiddies all just drag a little. Even the gorgeous setting of Alicante, standing in for Majorca, can’t move this forward. There is something deeply dull in the detail.
Bernard Rose’s direction and writing have some strengths, but there is too much here that is nearly real time and you look at your watch. The Stratford Picture House audience became restless and chattering could be heard, along with the flashing of mobile phones. The woman next to me was adding Facebook friends at a great pace through the last hour.
Rhys Ifans is excellent as Marks and Chloe Sevigny brings great strength to the role of his wife, Judy. David Thewlis, Crispin Glover and Omid Djalili play their distinctive characters well. Jack Huston stands out too.
There are some lovely scenes. The beautiful designs of the Annabelinda shop in Oxford are still among my favourites and it’s fantastic to see those gorgeous 1970s prints again. I think I sort of knew the place was a front for Howard Marks, but I fear that added to the glamour for me, given the times.
The inevitable arrest and prison section has one great scene, in which Marks teaches literacy to the inmates at Terre Haute penitentiary in Indiana. Yet this whizzes by. The courtroom scenes are all a little old-fashioned compared to those we usually see on television.
Despite perfect period detail and continuity, there is a real slowness and loss of pace here, after a great start. Howard Marks visited the set of the film (it’s based on his autobiography, “Mr Nice”) and said he fancied the actress playing his mother. She is very good, but her name seems to be missing from IMDB and I blinked and missed it.
The scenes with the parents – William Thomas plays Marks’ dad – are quite affecting and a true lesson in unconditional love.
There is a great movie to be made about the life and legend of Marks. This isn’t it. The way this comes across, it’s a waste of a good mind and great capabilities. I hate waste.