Bernard Hill’s combination of everyman defiance and nagging melancholy puts his performance alongside the powerhouse turn of Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa, another tragic figure seeking solace from the hopelessness of his crime-ridden life.
When director Richard Loncraine began preparing for Bellman and True in the mid-1980s, he was expecting to shoot a three-part series for TV. The screen version of Desmond Lowden’s novel was to be produced by Euston Films, a subsidiary of Thames Television, as three 50-minute episodes. But when HandMade Films got involved at a late stage to help with completion, Loncraine cut the film to under two hours for theatrical release. It’s this which reveals why such an offbeat thriller has a similarly oddball plot construction, the result of production upheaval rather than artistic desire, perhaps.
Yet, it works as a sort of extension to our protagonist’s state of mind. The muddled, midlife crisis of Bernard Hill’s surrogate father-figure has a bemused quality to it that’s somewhat complemented by a fragmented story structure. Bellman and True sets off at a hundred miles per hour and isn’t interested in whether the audience can catch up or not. And whether you do or not really comes down to how you begin to acclimatise yourself with Hill’s tortured soul.
We begin with him on the run with a child, referenced only as The Boy (Kieran O’Brien). They are discovered in a London hotel by a pair of gangsters who bring them to the safehouse of Salto (Richard Hope), an unscrupulous money-man preparing for a lucrative bank robbery. Hill’s computer programmer Hiller has seemingly had second thoughts having wilfully got himself involved with the criminal gang. He had stolen information about a bank’s security system with the intention of selling it but is now forced to decode the information while being held captive.
It transpires that Hiller is a whizz with mechanics (he builds simple robot devices to amuse The Boy) and is recruited to the crew to help overcome the sophisticated alarm system installed at the bank. He is an unwilling but compliant participant, reasoning his obedience will prevent harm coming to the child, and hopefully accelerate their freedom.
This leads to Bellman and True’s second act, the film’s strength, a lowkey British gangland caper that recalls Stateside efforts like The Anderson Tapes and the Rat Pack Ocean’s 11 with the grit, grime and muted, spiritless aesthetic of HandMade Film’s more accomplished crime dramas like The Long Good Friday. Hiller’s the outsider; plagued by an underlying sadness from past events we’re not fully aware of now compounded by the sight of one of the gang member’s legs getting mangled in the lift shaft. When he’s thrust into the backseat of the getaway car, clinging on for dear life, we’re right there with him, feeling every bump in the road.
Lowden’s clever bank heist is well-realised by Loncraine’s camera. However, visually, the film steps up a level with its getaway sequence, especially The Wheelman’s (Jim Dowdall) desperate attempts to evade capture by driving his car between two unforgiving garages. The gang’s arrival at a location to dump the vehicle recalls the rusted metallic hue of limp industry that stages Michael Caine’s demise in Get Carter. It’s a desolate dumping ground foreshadowing a bleak final act.
The film’s episodic nature can be attributed to its made-for-TV origins but apart from possessing three obvious “parts”, Bellman and True is otherwise typical of British cinema, when not concerning itself with period drama, of the 1980s. It’s willing to take risks, happy to sit on the fringes of convention, and starkly independent. The fact it goes flat at times can be blamed on the acting of Bernard Hill. Not only is he blessed with the most well-written role (perhaps the film’s only truly three-dimensional character), his combination of everyman defiance and nagging melancholy puts his performance alongside the powerhouse turn of Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa, another tragic figure seeking solace from the hopelessness of his crime-ridden life.
Hill’s brilliance here is in stark contrast with Richard Hope’s one-note suit-and-tie gangster, a hearty dose of camp and stilted delivery threatening to derail moments of austere drama. Without Hill steadying the ship, Bellman and True fondles comic farce. The other performances are far more attune with Loncraine’s stylistic preference (Derek Newark as the Guv’nor is pleasingly menacing) but hamstrung by caricature.
Similarly, the appearance of Anna (Frances Tomelty), a prostitute who is paid to look after The Boy while Hiller works for the gang, makes for an uncomfortable plot digression that never works on-screen. Her role becomes a prominent part of the film’s third act – the result of a subplot involving Hiller’s ex-partner and his relationship with The Boy – but her early scenes feel like an after-thought. Anna’s character shows how when the film moves away from its principle focus on the bank robbery it becomes far less effective. There’s scope for the relationship between Anna and Hiller to work but it isn’t realised here making their final confrontation far less potent.
It’s this that means Bellman and True isn’t remembered with the same sense of admiration that greets other British gangster films of the 1980s. Although the decade wasn’t entirely kind to national cinema, there are snippets of greatness within the crime genre that Loncraine’s effort only intermittently emulates. It does get tantalisingly close at times though thanks to Hill’s compelling performance and a handful of moments when the director’s skilful set-pieces and caffeinated pacing meet writer Lowden’s clever plot devices.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Richard Loncraine
Written by: Richard Loncraine, Desmond Lowden, Michael Wearing
Starring: Bernard Hill, Derek Newark, Richard Hope, Ken Bones, Frances Tomelty, Kieran O’Brien
Released: 1987 / Genre: Crime Drama
Country: UK / IMDB
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Bellman and True was released on Blu-ray in the UK on May 27, 2019.