A breezy voiceover at the beginning of Lucky Break, written by Ronan Bennett and directed by Peter Cattaneo, tells us about the long friendship between Jimmy Hands (James Nesbitt) and his pal Rudy Guscott (Lennie James) and a “15-year bad streak” which we understand has to do with their criminal activities and frequent failures therein. This introduction is quickly broken off so that we may witness an inept bank robbery in London by Jimmy and Rudy which results in (a) their being sent to prison at the fictional Long Rudford and (b) Rudy’s hostility to Jimmy for having run away and abandoned him — though the latter is productive only of a few brief insults before things are patched up at Long Rudford and the two are better friends than ever.
Now there would have been a problem if the film had simply been set in the prison and no attention at all had been paid to the reason why the inmates were there, but I think the problem would have been less than it is with this unsatisfactory introduction. We know pretty quickly that we are going to be asked for sympathy on behalf of Jimmy and Rudy and a few others of the prisoners, and especially with their desires to get out of prison by fair means or foul. Yet when we know so little of their lives on the outside, and that little is suspiciously glossed over in this fashion, we cannot but suspect that some manipulation is going on. It is easy to forget, and perhaps especially easy for the movies to forget, that criminals are criminals when they are prevented by residence in prison from engaging in much criminal activity.
But Jimmy does a good and noble thing and a thing which suggests that he really does mean to mend his ways. Unlike Rudy and two other conspirators, he gets out the right way, and because of the love of a good woman. This is an excellent thing, as — surely? — everyone must agree. But what has he got to go back to when he gets out but petty (or not so petty) crime? Although we can believe in his love of musicals, we see too little of his life outside of prison to put it into any kind of context that makes sense. Still, even if a real Jimmy would be likely to have rather more of the sort of personality defects associated with such a career than he does, such a redemption is not impossible. And isn’t it to see such a thing happen, rare though we may admit it to be, that we go to the movies?
The good woman in Jimmy’s case is Annabel Sweep (Olivia Williams), an occupational therapist working with prisoners. I like the fact that the banter between them centers on Jimmy’s suspicion that there must be something wrong with her if she’s working in a prison with losers like himself, and her tart-tongued retort that whatever may be her problems, she is still better off than, uh, losers like himself. “You must be one of those do-gooders,” he tells her with the hardened criminal’s contempt. But then like a little boy he tries to impress her with his desperate career as a bank robber: “We are considered the élite of the criminal underworld,” he says with comic pomposity, though not without an Irish sense of self-irony.
But the best thing in the movie is the great comic invention of the prison governor, or warden, Graham Mortimer (Christopher Plummer), whom we first meet on a tour of the prison humming “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. Jimmy quickly discovers that the governor is himself the author of a musical about the life of the great British naval hero, Lord Nelson, and sets to work to flatter him into allowing the convicts to produce it in a part of the prison with reduced security. Under the cover of their performance, Jimmy is to arrange for a prison break.
Plummer’s performance alone is worth seeing the movie for. I especially liked the perfect look of bewildered incomprehension with which he answers the drama coach, Paul Dean (Julian Barratt), who suggests to him, at Rudy’s prompting, that his portrait of Nelson “could be seen as a little one-dimensional” and that he might include a few flaws. “Nelson had no flaws,” he says, as if correcting a spelling mistake. But then, a child of his time, he agrees to the request by putting in the mouth of Hardy, who is played by Rudy, the words: “You’re always like this, Horatio; its always about you, isn’t it?” It is a wonderfully absurd excursion into the land of psychobabble and the kind of gesture to modernity and bureaucratic jargon that the governor must have been making all his life.
Jimmy, whose familiarity with musicals is attributed to an improbably happy childhood, when he was taken to see them in Belfast by his father, is himself given the part of the great Admiral (whose lines being spoken in an Irish accent adds to the general hilarity) and Miss Sweep is inveigled into playing the part of his mistress, Emma Hamilton. The best thing of all is their love duet which (especially as they perform it) has just the right combination of cheapness and genuine feeling to remind us of what it is we love about musicals — and of the mixed and contradictory but glorious nature of love itself, which the best of them celebrate.
This is entirely charming, even moving, though a subplot involving the persecution of Jimmy’s cellmate, Cliff (Timothy Spall), by a sadistic guard (Ron Cook) and Cliff’s sad, sad story is too much of a distraction. Instead the film should have spent the time further developing the theme that cries out for it, namely that of the men who want to escape from the prison of themselves, including the governor, by becoming somebody else. There is a thrilling moment during the escape, staged during the sort of musical entertainment that is often called “escapist,” when the idea comes up of having to make good the escape by “acting like free men.” But not enough is made of it. Better is the complex irony of Jimmy’s repeating the governor’s mantra about “the liberating power of drama” as a ploy in his game before discovering that it really is liberating — though not in the way he had expected.
As with the sketch of Jimmy’s earlier life, however, his period of serving out his time ought to be filled in a little if we are to see that there is a true moral understanding of the liberation he has so happily learned to seek.