Vodka, and Coca Cola… Détente in a glass!
Vernon Bayliss (Denholm Elliott) is a veteran hack, and a very pissed one at the moment. He’s tired, past his sell-by date, a leftie serving out his time on a right-wing rag – and he’s just helped stitch up an old friend for his newspaper.
It’s the mid-80s, Thatcher era Britain. American nuclear missiles at airbases across the UK, privatisation, the ‘me’ decade, fag-end of the Cold War… Young reporter Nick Mullen (Gabriel Byrne) is keen to climb the greasy pole in the Street of Shame, and when Labour MP Dennis Markham (Ian Bannen) is caught up in a sex scandal, he sees his opportunity. He looks down at his nose at Vernon, a washed-up old sot, but he realises that Vernon may help him land a scoop on fellow traveller Markham. In essence Mullen is a parasite, feeding on whatever he can suck out of Vernon’s liver-spotted carcass. Venal, self-serving, cunning, Mullen gets his scoop, and Vernon sinks into booze-soaked depression – but we know that something is up…
So, what’s going on? Well, Dennis Markham – a former chair of the Commons Defence Committee – has been sharing a mistress with an East German military attaché. Cue snatched telephoto pics, doorstepped interviews and front page splashes; a man in disgrace. Vernon was the man given the job of putting the accusations to his friend. But despite his alcoholism, we see in Vernon an honour that the cynical, laid-back young Mullen just doesn’t have. That is, until guilt creeps in.
Written by Martin Stellman, who cut his teeth on Quadrophenia and Babylon, and directed by TV specialist David Drury, Defence Of The Realm is just the sort of film that isn’t being made in Britain at the moment. It’s unflashy, muted in places, and most of all, it’s got ideas, an agenda, points to make. Snatch it is not. Red herrings and MacGuffins are thrown casually across the whole film, adding to Mullen’s increasing confusion, when the plot – both of the film and within it – is essentially a very simple one: corruption, conspiracy, cover-up.
The familiar motifs of conspiracy thriller are all here – deep throat sources, anonymous tip-offs, bugging, burgling – but script, direction and acting all raise it above the level of cliché. There are some hackneyed elements, sure – Mullen composes his final article to a classical symphony, his piano a typewriter, for example – but overall the film is an exercise in restraint. Nothing is over-explained, giving the audience a chance to lead itself down blind alleys. The use of TV and radio news reports in the background also helps move the story along, adding depth to many of the smaller plot points, which are rarely if at all, addressed. It’s a sophisticated approach, and one that doesn’t detract from the main storytelling. The point-of-view is subtle too, with the director resisting the temptation to reveal too much of the story from the eyes of anyone but Mullen. The effect? Oppressive, claustrophobic, plodding exposition, entwined with the sugar pill of the reporter-procedural, leading up to a frenzied climax.
In particular it boasts excellent pacing: it starts at a relaxed pace, but by the end, as the pieces fall together, as Mullen becomes driven, leaves behind his old, childish self like a snakeskin, everything quickens to a nauseous crescendo, more detail is painted in, new characters appear from nowhere, old characters reappear in different guises, and the viewer senses bad tidings. There are even hints that this is a tragedy, with an inevitability to the ending: Vernon is Mullen through the kaleidoscope of a lifetime, and we soon find out what that means… Mullen becomes paranoid, mistrustful, insular; he knows bad things are happening, but he doesn’t know who to trust or how to dig himself out. His only ally is Markham’s secretary, Nina (Greta Scacchi), but this is not Woodward and Bernstein uncovering the truth in All The President’s Men; this is a war of survival for them both. A meeting on the old Hungerford bridge, half-drowned out by passing trains, the footfall of passing pedestrians, and aeroplanes overhead (perhaps a nod to that classic of paranoia/conspiracy cinema, The Conversation) demonstrates that these are not two seekers after truth, but scared people caught up in something they know is far bigger than either could deal with. They are not waving, but drowning.
Also worth mentioning is the editing (Michael Bradsell) and photography (Roger Deakins). Cross-cutting and contrasting colours are both used to great effect in creating mood and moving the story along, especially in the final part of the film. It’s discreet as well, and has the effect of signalling a change in tone and pace, something many directors struggle with. The visuals certainly helped Deakins find work – he ended up a stalwart of Coen brother films – which shouldn’t be a surprise to viewers familiar with his slate of British films: Stormy Monday, White Mischief, Sid And Nancy and The Kitchen Toto all came under his lens.
A fine film, which brings in elements that still resonates today – think Dr David Kelly, government secrecy, terrorist attacks, it’s all in there – but in a trad thriller package. Find it, watch it, get scared.