The most captivating moment of Donal MacIntyre’s documentary A Very British Gangster occurs about a third of the way into the film. MacIntyre is interviewing the film’s central character, real-life Manchester, England mafioso Dominic Noonan. The two are at a pool hall, and after a botched attempt at a question, MacIntyre, his face etched with anxiety over the words about to leave his mouth, finally finds the resolve to ask the imposingly rotund Noonan if he’s gay.
Noonan doesn’t hesitate. Of course, he replies. I’m gay – everybody knows that. Noonan proceeds to recall how older male classmates at a boarding school brutally and serially raped him when he was 13 years old. Averting his eyes and tightening his jaw, Noonan then hints at the violence he used to “get even” with his rapists as an adult gangster. “Some of them didn’t even remember me,” Noonan states. “But I remembered them.”
The scene vibrates with dramatic tension and leaves one wondering how the film will explore what it’s like to be gay in a vehemently homophobic subculture. Is the rape what drives Noonan to murder, beat, and pillage his way through life? And as a subject, a gay, devoutly Catholic, British gangster who surrounds himself with a crew of teenage boys (and is also willing to give you unlimited access to his operation and life) sounds like a director’s dream. But MacIntyre, a former BBC and ITV reporter turned director, blunders the opportunity. MacIntyre asks Noonan no follow-up questions about the rape and only briefly touches on his faith, though Noonan seems ready to volunteer more information on both topics.
As the film progresses, it’s evident that MacIntyre is less interested in Noonan the man than Noonan the underworld symbol. We hear snippets about bold robberies and thuggish brutality, but instead of becoming a unique chronicle of a contradictory figure, A Very British Gangster descends into gangster glorification. Offset by a few poignant scenes in which Noonan’s young son talks about his unconditional love for his father and what it’s like to be the oft-abandoned offspring (though only in his early 40s, Noonan has spent more than 23 years in prison) of a notorious criminal, the film otherwise slums it on the level of boyish fantasy, reveling in the guns, violence, and depravity of the criminal lifestyle.
MacIntyre seems to do everything he can to make Noonan even more of a larger-than-life figure than the gang leader already is. The film abounds with slick camera work, including a gratuitous amount of prolonged crane tracking shots that draw heavily on the sanctifying cinematography Scorsese used to for subtler, sager purposes in Goodfellas. Apparently, MacIntyre believed it wasn’t enough that Noonan was the head of a combustible Manchester crime family, with a coke addict for a brother, two illegitimate kids, and enough tales of debauchery to satiate even Bret Easton Ellis. No, MacIntyre clearly decided he had to make Noonan sexy. As a result, the audience is subjected to numerous tasteless montages (two of which are set, disastrously, to the Pulp Fiction theme and Oasis’ “Wonderwall”) that appear like promotional material for the Noonan family. Noonan’s rationale for agreeing to the film becomes evident early on when we watch him yelling at a passerby to shut up because he’s trying to film “my movie.” Noonan recognizes that the film is PR fluff, even if MacIntyre doesn’t. The gangster wants to be the idol of impressionable boys everywhere, and this film is his shot at fame.
MacIntyre never asks either Noonan or his large family about their moral justifications for their illicit endeavors. The Godfather’s brilliance, like that of The Sopranos, is predicated on our ability to empathize and associate with a mafia family. We never reach that point with Noonan. Though he is a fascinating character riddled with internal paradoxes, the film depicts him as all Sonny and no Michael. Worse yet, Noonan’s whole organization appears amateurish. His acne-ridden squad of squabbling bodyguards clad in ill-fitting suits inspires laughter rather than intimidation. They seem like kids dressed up for Halloween.
Furthermore, there are too many aspects of Noonan’s life that A Very British Gangster leaves uncultivated. The section of Manchester in which the Noonan family lives and recruits looks reminiscent of the squalid inner-city Baltimore housing projects captured on The Wire. Yet the youngest of Noonan’s crew brag that the older generation became gangsters to survive, while they became gangsters for the thrills. What does Noonan think about Manchester’s economic situation and the misguided machismo spewed by his teenage cohorts? We don’t know because MacIntyre never asks. Who are all the imposingly sinister men that suddenly appear at Noonan’s brother’s funeral at the film’s end? That too remains a mystery. Despite the tantalizing potential of its premise, A Very British Gangster feels predictable and formulaic. Instead of an up-close study of criminality personified, MacIntyre and Noonan offer us Scarface lite.