Directed by Ridley Scott
Ironically enough, it’s the performance of Christopher Plummer as notoriously stingy billionaire J Paul Getty, substituted for the disgraced Kevin Spacey and reshot only weeks before the film’s release, which is the strongest thing about this over-extended account of the 1973 kidnapping in Rome of Getty’s sixteen-year-old grandson John Paul Getty III (Paul). He creates a magnificent monster, ponderous, self-obsessed, his only emotion an almost childlike delight in ownership. How far this portrait is genuinely fair to the man (clearly almost psychopathically mean – he installed payphones for the guests in his houses), whose reason for not paying up – that if he did all his other grandchildren would be at risk – is given little weight in the film, though it is surely a serious consideration. But it makes for a tremendously compelling central, unmoveable figure, around which the machinations and various twists (so many of them concocted for the sake of bringing in a little action) revolve.
At first there’s strong suspicion that the rascal Paul has set up this ‘kidnapping’ with his pals to extract money from Grandad. Or maybe it’s the Red Brigade… And so the several months of Paul’s imprisonment trudge on, despite the best attempts of Michelle Williams, and she’s good, to run a narrow gamut of devotion-despair-exasperation as the boy’s powerless mother Gail. Even with the arrival of a body part Grandad won’t budge, and Paul’s estranged Dad, (Andrew Buchan, none other than the dodgy dad from Broadchurch) is by now hanging out with his new wife and assorted druggy luminaries on the Med and is, well, away with the fairies, and plays little part. Paul himself is played by Charlie Plummer (a decent lookalike for the real Paul), to be seen later this year as a troubled teen in very different mode in Lean On Pete, who after a cocky five minutes wandering louchely around a Pasolini-esque Rome has little to do other than suffer.
Though it was big news at the time, a long kidnapping saga with little physically happening needs some gingering up to make a 132-minute film, so in steps Mark Wahlberg in downbeat mode as JP Getty’s ace security guy. To do what exactly? Despite looking wise and studious (it’s marvellous what a pair of specs can do) he only comes into his own when there’s stuff to do, like accompanying Gail to the final rendezvous. Unlike the actuality this involves extended car chases and dark wanderings through an ill-lit Italian hill town where pursuers of good and bad intentions and pursued are suspensefully indistinguishable. This is not at all how Paul was found, but it gives Scott chance to show how much better he is at action, panorama, movement, and filling out the widescreen, than the slow-moving close-ups and interiors which comprise most of this film. And shows how very unsuitable a director he is for the genuine subject matter. Another add-on comes in the shape of Romain Duris as Cinquanta, one of the original kidnappers who falls victim to a one-sided Stockholm syndrome, and sickening of the long cruelty meted out to the sixteen-year-old becomes a covert sympathiser and go-between. But in general the Italians in this film come out very badly: heartless paparazzi, cowed peasants, and corruptible police.
But it’s Plummer’s Getty rather than the (necessarily) slow-moving action which makes this film worth seeing. At 88, he’s rarely been more compelling, a clinical and calculating Kane, for whom profit, loss and acquisition will always come before emotion. The rich are indeed different.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, January 2018