The catalog of nasty British films about nasty British gangsters gains a powerful, very unsettling entry with "Charlie," an offbeat biopic about '60s London hoodlum Charlie Richardson and his notorious "terror gang." Gritty, violent pic has been doing well in limited release since Feb. 6 and deserves a shot at wider dissemination.

The catalog of nasty British films about nasty British gangsters gains a powerful, very unsettling entry with “Charlie,” an offbeat biopic about ’60s London hoodlum Charlie Richardson and his notorious “terror gang.” Led by a magnetic performance from former boyband Bros star Luke Goss (“Blade II”), and with an outlook that teeters perilously between damning and excusing Richardson’s past, this gritty, violent second feature by writer-director Malcolm Needs (“Shoreditch”) has been doing well in limited release since Feb. 6 and deserves a shot at wider dissemination via selected fests, where it could prove a talking-point.

From “Get Carter” and “Villain,” through “The Long Good Friday” and “The Krays,” to the mass of recent examples like “Gangster No. 1,” the Brit gangster pic has carved a distinct genre separate from its Yank or Asian counterparts. Largely focused on the psychopathic nature of violence rather than being narrative yarns per se, their casual brutality has often left a bad taste in the mouth, even when the pics are gripping dramas in their own right.

“Charlie” is no exception. Set during the same period as “The Krays,” when working-class gangs evolved during the economic stringency of post-WWII Britain, pic follows Charlie (Goss) and his brother Eddy (Langley Kirkwood) as they carve out a south London empire based on extortion and dodgy business deals, while the Kray brothers do the same in north London.

Social and economic changes, plus a hard-line attitude by the authorities, signaled their demise in the mid-’60s. Partly narrated by Charlie himself, a cold-eyed charmer with a breezy voiceover, film is centered on the famous 1967 trial which lasted 45 days, shocked Blighty with its tales of horrific torture, and resulted in Charlie being sent down for 25 years. After escaping to Spain which had no extradition treaty with the U.K., he later gave himself up and served 18 of his 25 years. He is now a legitimate businessman with an autobiography and a South African gold mine.

Flashing back and forth between the trial of Charlie and his associates and various periods in Charlie’s life, pic settles into a rhythm of testimonies by crims-turned-witnesses, scenes of their torture at the hands of Charlie’s colleagues, and straight chunks of narrative. In docu-drama-like interviews to camera, the testimonies are forthrightly denied by the various accused — but only after the pic has shown an unseemly, and repetitive, interest in restaging them. These sequences, of genital electrocution, ad hoc dentistry with pliers and straight beatings are definitely not for the squeamish.

The straight narrative sequences give Goss and the cast more chance to shine, as Charlie becomes enamored of the opportunities and rich, white lifestyle in South Africa during the early ’60s. Getting into bed commercially with businessman Richard Waldeck (Cockney soap star Leslie Grantham), and literally with the powerfully connected Jean Le Grange (Nicole Sherwin), niece of the country’s security head (Marius Weyers), Charlie even starts taking on political assignments — such as burgling the ANC’s London offices — for local favors.

His demise comes when the judge (Antony Carrick) at his trial, who has a personal agenda to settle, doesn’t buckle under threats. In a final caption that sums up the movie’s disturbingly vague viewpoint, pic notes that the case would have been thrown out of court today.

To be fair, “Charlie” doesn’t soft-peddle its protag’s behavior, and for every sequence that glamorizes Richardson as a sarf-London Cockney charmer there’s another showing him as a wild-eyed, smiling nutcase. As the law tightens its grip on him, there’s almost a piquancy in his declaration to his defense counsel that he only harmed those in his circle, never outsiders.

Aside from Goss, who follows on the heels of Spandau Ballet’s Kemp brothers (“The Krays”) in brilliantly reincarnating Cockney villains, pic is exceptionally well cast down the line, though Steven Berkoff as Charlie’s dad is short-changed by the script. Dialogue is as brutal as the on-screen violence, strewn with four-letter words. Transfer from hi-def DV is excellent, with no perceptible blur, and the cold, browny colors give the film a chilly pallor. Occasional use of split screen also contribs to the pro look, enhanced by lively editing and convincing period design on a budget.

Charlie

U.K.

Production

An Entertainment Film Distributors release of a Midas Films production. (International sales: Equator Films, London.) Produced by Tim Ireland, Malcolm Needs. Co-producer, Tim Lewiston. Directed, written by Malcolm Needs.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Zoran Veljkovic; editors, Toby Yates, Jeremy Gibbs; music, Stephen W. Parsons; production designer, Andrea Christelis; costume designer, Diana Cilliers; sound (Dolby Digital), Stephen Richardson, Colin McFarlane; special effects, Johnny Rafique; assistant director, Jay Arthur. Reviewed at Warner Village West End 8, London, Feb. 19, 2004. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

Luke Goss, Steven Berkoff, Leslie Grantham, Anita Dobson, Nicole Sherwin, Marius Weyers, Antony Carrick, Langley Kirkwood, Mark Arden, Tony Longhurst, Lincoln Hudson, Grant Swanby.
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