All the Money in the World (15)
Dir Ridley Scott, 133mins, starring: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg
“Money is never just money; it always stands for something,” we are told midway through Ridley Scott’s absorbing new film about the kidnapping of the teenaged John Paul Getty III in Italy in 1973.
All the Money in the World is billed as a crime drama but its real themes are exchange and negotiation. The questions it asks are what lengths its characters will go to in order to acquire or hold onto money – and whether money is a source of life or death.
Ridley Scott has shown the same ruthlessness and brinkmanship you would expect from the kidnap victim’s oil tycoon grandfather, J Paul Getty, in rescuing his own movie. With Kevin Spacey (originally cast as J Paul Getty) in disgrace over sexual harassment allegations, Scott drafted in Christopher Plummer to replace him.
He then re-shot and re-edited large parts of the film only weeks before its planned release. Plummer is very impressive indeed but, with all the fuss around his last-minute casting, it is easy to forget that Michelle Williams is the at the heart of the film.
She plays Gail Harris, the distraught mother trying to get her son back from the kidnappers. She is a grim and morbid story’s one truly admirable character. Williams shows us Gail’s helplessness and terror but also her steeliness and courage as she fights to get her son back.
Hers is the performance that we should really be talking about. After her vapid showing as PT Barnum’s wife in The Greatest Showman, it’s heartening to see her back in the limelight.
Throughout the film, Scott juggles styles. Early on, when John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is seen walking through the streets of Rome just prior to his kidnapping, it is as if we’ve stumbled into some Fellini or Pasolini film of the period.
The city has a carnivalesque, Dolce Vita feel. The good-looking youngster makes small talk with kind-hearted prostitutes. Scott accentuates the glamour of the Rome scenes in order to contrast them with the squalor that follows once the boy is bundled away by the kidnappers and driven hundreds of miles to captivity in a remote part of Calabria.
As a story, All the Money in the World is pulling in several different directions at once. It’s a satirical study of how extreme wealth distorts human behaviour. Some of its best scenes are its most absurd ones, in which Plummer’s J Paul Getty behaves with a grotesque meanness.
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He’s not just the richest man in the world; he is the richest man in the history of the world and, yet, in his own mind, he is financially vulnerable. As he pops a champagne cork, he sternly tells his security boss, ex-CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), that he has “no money to spare”. Getty has 14 grandchildren. He reasons that if he starts paying ransoms now, he will have “14 kidnapped grandchildren”. Besides, ransom money isn’t tax deductible.
There are darkly comic scenes in which we will hear church music on the soundtrack as money is being counted or in which we will see Getty entering into complex negotiations – not to help Gail and her kidnapped son but to buy some precious painting of a Madonna and child that he has long coveted.
At the same time, this is a thriller. The clock is running. Fletcher Chase is sent by Getty to Rome to help Gail get her son back. The filmmakers dutifully try to ratchet up the tension. Every so often, Gail receives a call from Cinquanta (Romain Duris), the kidnapper’s representative, warning her that if the cash isn’t forthcoming, John Paul will be mutilated and killed.
In the course of their rushed calls, Gail and Cinquanta form an unlikely bond. They’re both equally frustrated that the ransom isn’t being paid. Gail protests in vain that she is “not a real Getty” and that she doesn’t have access to her father-in-law’s wealth. Cinquanta is astounded and frustrated that the Getty family is doing so little to get John Paul back.
The Italian police aren’t doing much to help and the Italian media is doing nothing but get in the way. All the while, John Paul is kept locked up as if he is a piece of livestock. The southern Italy scenes are reminiscent of old mafia movies.
Scott relishes the contrast between rural Calabria and the chilly Home Counties splendour in which J Paul Getty is living in his mausoleum-like mansion house, Sutton Place.
One grisly detail everyone remembers from the Getty kidnapping is that John Paul’s ear was cut off and sent in the mail by his captors. Inevitably, the incident of ear is foregrounded. The film’s poster is a grotesque image of a severed, bleeding ear, moulded out of a $100 bill, and the scene of the severance is shot in predictably stomach-churning fashion.
Even so, the thriller elements are the least convincing element here. Wahlberg’s character is clearly intended as an equivalent to the type of special agent Clint Eastwood played in Eighties and Nineties movies but there is little space for movie heroism here. Nor, in spite of the character’s rapport with Gail, is there the chance to develop a romantic sub-plot.
The film, based on John Pearson’s book about the Getty clan, generally sticks close to the facts. For all the vigour of the action scenes – a fire deliberately started in the fields in Calabria, a night-time chase around the maze-like streets of a Calabrian town – this is a character drama, not a conventional crime movie.
Plummer brings cunning, venality and, finally, an unlikely pathos to his role as Getty, the wealthy old potentate who learns the age-old lesson that all the money in the world can’t bring security or peace of mind. Williams, meanwhile, is the moral centre of the film, the one character who doesn’t allow the dollar bills and pound signs to cloud her vision.
All the Money in the World hits UK cinemas on 5 January.
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