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A Very British Gangster

A Very British Gangster


A review of the British documentary about a gay crime boss, screening at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival

There are two main characters in the documentary A Very British Gangster : Dominic Noonan, and Manchester. The former is the charismatic head of the Noonan crime family, gay, bald as a bullet, with a rap sheet that includes $8 million in heists and bank robberies and half a lifetime spent in prison. The latter is Dominic's place of operations, a rough-and-tumble community whose people treat Dom as their own personal godfather--trusting him more than they do the ineffectual police force and the legal system that can't seem to make a charge against the man stick (earning him the appropriate nickname "Teflon Dom").

Dominic is a charismatic, audacious man, supposedly reformed (he is attempting to start a security business) but has a twinkle in his eyes as he discusses his past crimes, as well as those he is "allegedly" committing in the present day. This is a man who was broken out of prison to help his family with a pair of same day bank heists ("No one had attempted a double before," he explains), then promptly returned to jail after pulling off the first one. He's also a man who realized his homosexuality at an early age, which still didn't prepare him for the horrors of a rough boarding school where he was raped and passed around daily by older boys. When Dominic tells us that he caught up to all those boys as young men and dealt with them in ways you wouldn't wish on anyone, you believe him.

Part of Dominic's skill is his savvy for myth-making, a quality that the film both recognizes and rewards in spades. He and his men wear suits and ties when strolling Manchester, and the film supplies the Reservoir Dogs slow-mo - as well as the Dick Dale music cue from Pulp Fiction wailing in the background. His men respect Dominic, are blithe about his sexuality, and are frankly more interested in acting and posing than committing crimes. One boasts about appearing in an ad with David Beckham, another is a singer aspiring to the British reality competition The X-Factor . It's the latter, Dominic's nephew Sean, who gets off the movie's best line: honing his craft, he says, "I sing at weddings, funerals, acquittals...mostly acquittals."

Of course, it's through these young thugs, who look up to their elders like Dom but say things like, "They did what they did to survive. We do it for a rush," that you're reminded of the man - and the family's - terrible influence. Dominic is a torturer, an enforcer, savvy enough never to dirty his own hands but complicit nonetheless. For all the times the film seems to be in his pocket, and all there is to like about Dominic, the director keeps coming back to that. It's no surprise to learn that his mother burned down their home in an effort to move up the housing list, or that a relative in debt ineptly robs a post office because he can't conceive of any other way to pay his loans. Crime may pay dividends, but here, it exacts an equal cost through every generation.

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Kyle Buchanan