King of Thieves (2018)

King of Thieves first published by RealCrime Magazine

You probably know the score. After all, the Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary took place not so very long ago, over the Easter Bank Holiday of 2015, and was said to be “the largest burglary in English legal history”, with around 200 million pounds’ worth of cash and jewellery stolen by a crew of elderly career criminals. All were subsequently jailed for their non-violent action, save for much younger crew member ‘Basil’ who has never been properly identified let alone apprehended. Much of the loot remains unrecovered. It is an incident which has already inspired two feature dramatisations – Terry Lee Coker’s Hatton Garden: The Heist (2017) and Ronnie Thompson’s The Hatton Garden Job (2017) – as well as an ITV miniseries (Hatton Garden) made in 2017 but still not televised. The latest (and not the last) film to treat this burglary, King of Thieves, uses this true crime as both reflex and lament for Brexit Britain.

Directed by James Marsh, who has divided his filmmaking career between documentary (Man On Wire, Project Nim), docudrama (Wisconsin Death Trip, The Theory of Everything, The Mercy) and realist fiction (The King, TV’s Red Riding: The Last Year of Our Lord 1980, Shadow Dancer), King of Thieves opens with the death of Lyn (Francesca Annis), beloved wife of many decades to 77-year-old veteran of the 1983 Brink’s-Mat robbery Brian Reader (Michael Caine). Lyn’s passing establishes an elegiac tone that the film never shakes, as it follows Reader, left without his moral anchor, assembling a crew – Terry Perkins (Jim Broadbent), John ‘Kenny’ Collins (Tom Courtenay), Danny Jones (Ray Winstone) and Carl Wood (Paul Whitehouse) – to follow an inside lead on Hatton Garden from computer-savvy Basil (Charlie Cox), and then to get their stolen goods fenced by the incontinent Billy ‘The Fish’ Lincoln (Michael Gambon).

You might expect a film with this premise and this extraordinary cast to be a jolly caper of diamond geezers, but King of Thieves, though peppered with funny lines, is a melancholic film, preoccupied with decline. It is not just the many physical symptoms of ageing that its main characters exhibit, doomed by their own mortality as much as by fate (and good police work), but also the sense – confirmed by commentary heard in a background news report – that this ‘one last job’ serves equally as a metaphor for a Britain rapidly losing its greatness. For these men, talented but treacherous one and all, are set no less against each other than against society, each striving to retire well at the expense of everybody else – while their younger, more capable colleague ends up fleeing with his considerable cash and skills to the safer embrace of the continent.   

Strap: Age-old tale of crime and punishment.

© Anton Bitel