Guy Ritchie’s Identity Crisis: The Movie
The Gentlemen appeared on Netflix recently and after the, frankly dreadful, King Arthur & Aladdin, it seemed like Guy Ritchie was returning to his Lock, Stock and Snatch roots with another fun gangster caper, so I fancied a look. Sure enough it is a classic Ritchie gangster caper complete with the usual colourful cast of characters and deliberately loquacious dialogue. But more than that The Gentlemen is a self-consciously meta work about filmmaking itself, with the framing device of the film being Hugh Grant telling Charlie Hunnam the story of his character’s own screenplay that may or may not be a true story. It’s a clever device and allows for all sorts of unreliable narrator shenanigans but the trouble with drawing attention to the very process and medium you are using is that it invites further scrutiny upon the project which can often not be flattering. And here’s the problem with The Gentlemen, as it reveals a writer/director with a deeply felt, yet deeply confused, sense of Class.
The British, as a rule, have a murderous sense of Class. Where, when and to whom you were born is all any of us need to know about the other to pass immediate judgement and if those conditions are even slightly different from our own or those around us that person is ostracised, slandered or just flat out ignored. These are the basics of Britain’s (and specifically England’s) Class obsession but it gets more complicated the more you look at it. One of the biggest confusions around Class here is the fetishisation of certain class trappings. For instance, the middle classes have adopted a lot of the traditional working class virtues of yesteryear such as hard work paying off, ambition and aspiration, honesty and — ironically — thrift, to make them appear less unpleasant to the people who, to this day, struggle to survive. Similarly, when some people of working class origins achieve The Dream of “climbing the ladder” they sometimes attempt to leave behind the trappings of their roots, such as their accent (whatever accent that may be), their dress, their friends or familial connections and, most tragically, any sense of fellowship towards those of their previous background. But equally this works in reverse, those born into extreme wealth, those at the top of the ladder, occasionally try to “mingle with the common folk” by adopting a performative style of the working class, which is where we find Guy Ritchie.
The son of a Captain of the Seaforth Highlanders and advertising executive John Vivian Ritchie and the stepson of Shireen Ritchie, Baroness of Brompton, former model and Conservative politician and now life Peer, he attended Windlesham House Boarding School, built in 1837 and holds the title of the first Preparatory school in the UK, with notable school mates such as documentarian Louis Theroux, fellow writer/director Joe Cornish and comedian and podcast legend Adam Buxton. In short, Guy Ritchie is very much born and bred of the upper class in England, which makes his interest in the perceived ‘lower class’ worlds of organised crime, slums and Romani people present in a lot of his films so fascinating. Ritchie himself has never been shy about his upper class trappings, owning a Georgian Pub in the heart of London and the Wiltshire Estate of Ashcombe House as he does, and yet his most successful films, the one he clearly puts the most love and care into, like Lock, Stock and Snatch and even those that aren’t that successful like, Revolver and RocknRolla, are all devoted to the British Gangster genre. But it is in The Gentleman that we really get a peek into Ritchie’s understanding of class in Britain.
The main plot of The Gentlemen revolves around the titular Gentleman, a business man and weed grower/seller, an American, born of privilege (who owns a pub in London no less), that is able to grow and sell marijuana on an industrial scale without observation or interference. How does he do this? He works with the Landed Gentry of England, Lords and Ladies who “have all the land but no money”, and pays them a cut of the profits in exchange for using their land to grow the herb. So here we have Ritchie’s Class dichotomy writ large: the Upper Class intrinsically tied with organised crime and, via the machinations of the plot, the ‘lower classes’. The tagline of the movie even makes clear this is the topic upon which you should assess the film: “Criminal. Class.” But this is where it gets interesting, if a little confused. Just like the way the middle classes adopted the values of the working classes in the 20th century, as it implied a moral or ethical fortitude that was itself an effort to hide the gross injustices they benefitted from that come as standard with the Class system in the UK, Ritchie not only implicitly but explicitly moralises around the values and lifestyles of the specific groups portrayed in the film.
The Lords and Ladies in the film are, at worst, childish, clueless buffoons and at best, canny business men searching for a take. The underworld element however has a clear Good and Bad. There is a right and wrong to the criminals in The Gentlemen, expressed most clearly in McConaughey’s speech to the heroin crime lord, a scene intercut with the daughter of one of the Gentleman’s Noble clients dying on the lawn of a country house due to her heroin addiction, where he states that weed selling is fine but what the other guy does is evil. The way this scene is framed implies that this is not simply McConaughey’s character’s belief but the film’s too. Combine this with the various motivations of retribution, the masculine and violent protection of the protagonist’s wife and the many parlays between all parties and you have a very clear argument that there is honour among thieves and that the most upper of upper classes are inextricably linked with this criminal element. BUT the upper classes only trade with the ‘Good Guy’ of the underworld, McConaughey, so they’re not actually bad. They’re naughty perhaps, but in a cool way. Meanwhile, Colin Farrell’s character — to me, the only ‘good guy’ in the film — is very clear that he doesn’t like being caught up in this “gangster shit” and yet murders two Russian thugs to defend Charlie Hunnam’s character towards the end. In fact, rather amusingly, the only groups that are depicted as being true villains who deserve what they get are the heroin dealers and the Press. Hugh Grant’s journalist character is the worst kind of stereotyped red-top journo sleaze bag imaginable, along with Eddie Marsan’s pound store Malcolm Tucker as the amalgamation of every newspaper editor in the Max Clifford mould, both of whom get substantial comeuppances at the end. Consequently, it is a strange world The Gentlemen depicts. One that incorporates the aesthetics of British wealth into the criminal underworld but equally gives the upper class an out for their interaction with the underworld; they are the ones who are, in fact, all poor and lose their children to heroin addiction after all. One cannot help but think this is perhaps genuinely how Ritchie sees his positioning in the British Class system, a man of both extreme wealth and privilege with a connection to the gangster lifestyle. And, to Ritchie’s credit perhaps this is something the rest of us miss, the similarities therein. Both groups are obsessed with pageantry and fashion, with the Gentleman and the Lords and Ladies wearing tweed suits while there’s plenty of Burberry on display on the backs of other characters. Both groups have their own ‘code’ and it is the villainous press, who have none, that are to be derided and demeaned. Both groups have capital and see their generosity as “doing right” by those who have less (the ‘rescue’ of the Lord’s daughter and Hunnam’s offer to pay for the phone etc). All in, The Gentlemen acts as a lengthy and remarkably passionate defence of Ritchie’s own world view, i.e. a Conservative one.
To clarify, I do not begrudge anyone their upbringing. You do not choose where you are born or to whom. I myself am unequivocally middle class, being white and having been born and bred in the South East of England. We have no control over these factors so we should not judge one another on where we “came from”. It is this same thinking that underpins the now outright racism on display in British public life today whereby people demand British citizens and residents “go back to where they came from” purely based on the colour of their skin, but being English we also like to say the same of people who are born of a different Class to us, all of which is discriminatory and grossly unfair. Guy Ritchie being born wealthy and part of the upper class was not his fault and he should not be judged on that basis and, to his credit, he does at least depict an England where the extreme wealth of the upper classes exists alongside and in combination with the abject poverty under which 20% of the population live. This doesn’t, I’m afraid, excuse Ritchie’s warped justification for all this being a product of a very specific brand of criminality. While Ritchie cannot be blamed for being brought up in deeply conservative surroundings, his choices later in life we can blame him for and the ideologies that underpin his creative output are resoundingly distinctly problematic. A world view that sees society’s problems as being the result of not just criminality but the wrong kind of criminality (and not the other way around), one that does not abide by a strict code of ethics. Much like… well, every gangster movie ever made, the current law of the land is seen as proscriptive, strict and in a lot of ways unnecessary. The better law of the land, Ritchie’s projects say, should be born out of a code of honour, one of personal responsibility, that if transgressed is punishable by being shoved out of a window or locked in a freezer. A code that transcends boundaries of Class and Race yet ironically enough disenfranchises all. The code of biggest stick wins. Ritchie’s fascination with classes outside of that into which he was born has clearly created something of an identity crisis in his mind whereby he clearly still enjoys the trappings of upper class life but also desires the aesthetics and ‘authenticity’ (whatever that is) of life amongst the ‘lower classes’.
Class is the primary form of discrimination in England today and any efforts to undermine it are met with outright hostility from those who benefit from it. It is a deeply Conservative mindset that argues we are in a ‘Classless Society’, as the Prime Minister John Major once did, as it implies the discrimination and suffering meted out to those who were not born into wealth or do not earn more than £80,000 a year is of their own doing and if they just worked hard enough, or developed their own personal code, they could achieve better lifestyles. This belief ignores the systemic issues that create income inequality and entrench poverty across the globe, seen today in the despicable price hikes from every major corporation in the world along with an increase in taxes to the lowest earners, all while not increasing wages a penny, so that the ‘Economy’ can improve, all while living standards plummet. To lateralise class and individualise it as an issue created through personal moral failings is insulting to the billions of people living in poverty all over the world. But I’m not entirely sure Guy Ritchie understands that.
I enjoyed The Gentlemen. It’s a fun romp with great dialogue. I also love Snatch and the Sherlock Holmes movies are the closest thing cinema has had to an Indiana Jones movie in over 30 years. Ritchie is a great writer and a good director when he wants to be but I can’t say I agree with the worldview that is espoused in his films. It is not Guy Ritchie’s fault he was born into the corridors of wealth and power that create the dreadful conditions under which so many suffer today, but it is his fault that he continues to defend them.