Eight producers --- among whom is writer-director James Dearden --- manage to drop the ball on one of the '90s' most iconic true-life stories in "Rogue Trader." Tale of how Singapore-based futures trader Nick Leeson managed in 1995 to bankrupt Baring Brothers, the U.K.'s most venerable merchant bank, through a mixture of his ambition and the bank's blindness could have furnished any one of several gripping scenarios, but this pic isn't among them. In Blighty, film is entering a quick, belated release today, a week before Leeson is paroled from Singapore jail after serving two-thirds of his six-and-a-half-year sentence. It also preemed June 25 in the U.S. on Cinemax.
Eight producers — among whom is writer-director James Dearden — manage to drop the ball on one of the ’90s’ most iconic true-life stories in “Rogue Trader.” Tale of how Singapore-based futures trader Nick Leeson managed in 1995 to bankrupt Baring Brothers, the U.K.’s most venerable merchant bank, through a mixture of his ambition and the bank’s blindness could have furnished any one of several gripping scenarios, but this pic isn’t among them. In Blighty, film is entering a quick, belated release today, a week before Leeson is paroled from Singapore jail after serving two-thirds of his six-and-a-half-year sentence. It also preemed June 25 in the U.S. on Cinemax.
Working from the (admittedly one-sided) blueprint of Leeson’s book, Dearden had many routes available to refashion the material: as a study of charmed ex-pat life in Southeast Asia, as a tech-oriented thriller focusing on the nuts and bolts of international finance (a very ’90s approach), or as a psychological drama of a man thrust into extraordinary circumstances and convinced of his own invincibility.
Instead, Dearden has gone a retro route, with a kind of bargain-basement, British “Wall Street,” a story of simple greed and how a working-class kid hoodwinked the dozy Establishment. “Rogue Trader” ends up looking simply passe, an ’80s yarn in a ’90s setting, at a time when money-market characters have long ceased to be heroes for the media or the general public.
Movie quickly sketches the entree by Leeson (Ewan McGregor), a bright-eyed young man from a north London suburb, into one of the City’s stuffiest institutions, at a time when Barings decided it needed some sharp, declasse talent to stay in the game. Posted to Indonesia to sort out a bearer-bonds problem, Leeson works alongside Lisa (Anna Friel), a no-nonsense young woman from a similar background, whom he later marries.
After earning his stripes in Jakarta, Leeson is posted to Singapore, as general manager of Barings’ team on the Singapore Intl. Money Exchange. It’s a time when the Far East is the new economic frontier, a level playing ground where, Leeson observes, “anyone can make it.” Left to his own devices by a bank whose senior management doesn’t really understand the raft of new, complex financial instruments, Leeson hires keen but inexperienced staff whom he fashions in his own buccaneering image.
As well as leading the team on the trading floor, Leeson also manages his own back office — where the day’s deals are checked and accounted — rather than separating the two duties. This bucking of accepted practice, a crucial component of the story, is never given the dramatic importance it deserves.
Leeson’s combination of naivete and arrogance surfaces early when one of his team makes a mistake. Instead of firing her and limiting the exposure, Leeson tries to cover it and ends up with mud on his face when the market moves the wrong way. As his losses mount, he hides them in a Back Office Error Account, numbered 88888, which is eventually to play a part in the bank’s downfall.
Again breaking the rules, he also starts trading on the bank’s account rather than just clients’ — which is fine when he’s on a roll but proves fatal when the market goes against him. Impressed with Leeson’s paper profits, and with only a few lower-level people smelling a rat, Barings’ London management continues to give him carte blanche, turning a blind eye to possible infringements of regulations as long as the kid’s numbers look good. But on Feb. 23, 1995, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down, and the Leesons make a run for it.
With the outcome of the story already known, pic’s dramatic tension should come from either its characterization or the (admittedly complex) details of fast-moving international finance. Script fails to deliver on both fronts: Among the large cast there’s little chemistry or real relationships (a weakness in Dearden’s two previous pics, “Pascali’s Island” and “A Kiss Before Dying”), and the dialogue is functional at best and cliched at worst, with old chestnuts like “Promise me, whatever happens, you’ll always love me” (Leeson to wife at crunch time). Expats’ vacuum-sealed existence in Asia is thinly drawn.
On the banking front, pic manages a few exciting sequences on the trading floor but largely gives up on the challenge of making intelligent drama out of shifting digits, settling instead for an increasingly repetitive series of ups and downs and near escapes in Leeson’s fortunes.
McGregor, miscast, is far too boyishly likable in the lead role, and he’s surrounded by either wimps or stereotypes. Friel, a variable actress depending on her material and director, is stuck in a role that degenerates into a whiny, bored, tut-tutting expat wife. As members of Barings’ London staff, John Standing is wasted in a portrayal of the bank boss as simply a dim old-school-tie-er, Nigel Lindsay hams wildly as Leeson’s London superior, Aussie Ron Baker, and Tim McInnerney is a comic cut-out as a baffled, feeble exec.
Three potentially strong femme roles are given short shrift: Betsy Brantley as a suspicious London staffer, Caroline Langrishe as a hard-nosed accountant sent to check Leeson’s books and Irene Ng as Leeson’s loyal back-office assistant who knows full well what’s going on.
Location-shot largely in Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi), with a few exteriors in Singapore, pic convincingly re-creates Simex’s trading floor on a large set at the U.K.’s Pinewood Studios. Tech credits, however, are unremarkable, with variable color and lighting in print caught.