the moment

The Gentlemen is class satire, Guy Ritchie style – loud, muddled and contradictory

Netflix’s spin-off series looks at what happens when high society meets the criminal underworld. Its heart’s in the right place, writes Louis Chilton, but this schlocky crime caper has nothing of depth to say

Thursday 07 March 2024 11:53 GMT
Duking it out: Theo James in ‘The Gentlemen'
Duking it out: Theo James in ‘The Gentlemen' (Christopher Rafael/Netflix)

I reckon Guy Ritchie would be well suited to running a crime syndicate. Had the British filmmaker simply taken the mechanical relentlessness with which he’s been cranking out substandard gangster films and applied it to the illegal drug trade, I’d defy any kingpin to topple him. In six years, he’s released six films – five schlocky action thrillers (one yet to be released) and a live-action Aladdin – and now, he’s branching out into streaming television with a serialised spinoff of 2019’s The Gentlemen. The Netflix series promises to be a topsy-turvy take on the British class system, following a young duke who operates a cannabis empire from the basement of his inherited estate.

Is Ritchie really the right person to tackle the British class system? Perhaps not. He’s been doing it for much of his career, mind you – his distinctive brand of geezery crime caper is inextricably tied to a certain vision of working-class British identity. Ritchie himself is from a relatively opulent background – the child of a model and an Army officer turned advertising executive, he saw both his biological parents remarry while he was still young, his father to a future Conservative peer, and his mother to Sir Michael Leighton, a wealthy baronet. Even if we take the Mail’s claims that he’s a “distant descendent of King Edward I” with the requisite pinch of salt, it’s clear that the former husband of Madonna is somewhat removed from the proletarian milieu he explores onscreen. Rich people trying their hand at class satire is always a dicey proposition – just look at Emerald Fennell’s polarising Saltburn. There’s no denying The Gentlemen sets out with the right intentions. But as a work of social satire, it has little of depth to say.

On a surface level, the series is appropriately scathing of the British upper crust. The Gentlemen’s very premise juxtaposes the scuzzy friction of the criminal underworld with the supposed grandeur of the rich. Theo James plays Eddie Horniman, the telegenic young duke who goes into business with Susie, a savvy crook played by Skins’ Kaya Scodelario. The way these two worlds intersect – high and low society both contradicting and mirroring each other – is essentially the series’ USP. Joely Richardson, another one of the series’ stars, described The Gentlemen as “putting Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders in a blender”. At one point, Giancarlo Esposito’s character – an American crime boss iterating on the actor’s memorable Breaking Bad role – spells it out, describing British aristocrats as “the original gangsters” who “stole” land and wealth. “William the Conqueror was worse than Al Capone,” he remarks.

And yet, the series can’t resist revelling in the aesthetics of affluence. In appropriating the stately sets and costumes of a more straightforward period drama, The Gentlemen has its cake and eats it. As Eddie sits and discusses extortionately priced wine, faux-handwritten text appears on the screen, repeating the names of the wines mentioned and the corresponding market value. We are invited to marvel at the prosperity on display, even as we are supposed to condemn it. The Gentlemen’s stylised depiction of violence, too, indulges Ritchie’s usual hangups – you cannot escape the sense that he enjoys it. The centrepiece of episode two, for instance, follows a tremendously brutal fight in the living room/kitchen of a flat, underscored by the churning sound of a nu-metal song. It’s having just a little too much fun.

Ultimately, “Downton and Peaky Blinders in a blender” may be accurate enough. What, then, does that leave us with? A jar full of smashed-up pieces; satire by smithereen. This is pulp entertainment, I suppose – but maybe some subjects are better left unpulped.

‘The Gentlemen’ is streaming on Netflix now

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