Half way through the swinging sixties, two criminal families had most of London divided up between them. Everyone knows about the Krays but the lesser-known gang were the Richardsons. Hailing from South London, Charlie and Eddie Richardson started with a chain of scrapyards and hit the big time when they stumbled upon a scam to rip off customers using airport car parks. The organisation grew and diversified. Eddie moved into the lucrative fruit machine racket, which put him in competition with the Krays, while Charlie looked at more legitimate businesses in South Africa and ironically found himself mixed up with the most crooked people he'd met. The Richardsons were eventually brought down by the same weakness which toppled the Krays - their fame. They'd made headlines, lived the high life, fraternised with celebrities and became an acute embarassment to the police and the government. In 1966, Charlie, Eddie and several of their associates (including "Mad" Frankie Fraser) were prosecuted for beating and torturing small-time crooks who'd crossed them. They were convicted and jailed. Charlie was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The movie Charlie tells this story in a style more reminiscent of Goodfellas and Casino than most British films in the genre. Using the torture trial as a wraparound story, it zips back and forward with surprising deftness to incidents from the Richardsons' childhood, their rise to power, Charlie's escapades in South Africa and his life after the conviction. This complex patchwork structure is held together by narration from its title character. Writer / director Malcolm Needs has made only one previous film, a fantasy set during the Blitz called Shoreditch, which starred TV personality Shane Richie and was very briefly released last autumn to derisory reviews. Charlie doesn't deserve sneers. There are times when budgetary constraints become apparent, such as a power boat crash sequence, however for the most part this is a slick and good looking movie with a strong performance from its unlikely star.
It's traditional that British films about sixties gangsters should cast a pop star in the lead role - the Kemp brothers as The Krays, Roger Daltrey as McVicar and Phil Collins as Buster - and so Charlie is played by Luke Goss, who set teenage hearts aflutter in 1988 as a member of boy band Bros and more recently staked out an acting career playing a mutant vampire in Blade II. He may well succeed as an actor too. Goss is quite effective in the role, charming and scary when he needs to be and funny at times. He makes the most of a good scene early on where, reporting for National Service, he tells the officer that he's a communist and he'll feel obliged to pass on any military secrets he learns to Moscow. The casting is one of Charlie's strengths. Rarely for a British gangster movie, the actors playing hard men look and act like hard men. Incidentally, Goss isn't the only eighties icon in the movie - Den and Angie from Eastenders both turn up. Leslie Grantham is quite effective as a weak-kneed ex-pat conman while Anita Dobson, playing the boys' mum, comes and goes too quickly to have any impact.
She's not the only one. One of the two big flaws which prevent Charlie from completely working is that it has so much story to fit in that its large cast of characters get little chance to make an impression. They appear, they're namechecked by Charlie in the manner of "That's Jack 'the Hat' McVitie - he was killed by Reggie Kray", they have a line or two and then they're gone. Even Eddie Richardson, Charlie's brother and partner, doesn't really emerge as more than a sidekick. It would take more than ninety minutes to do full justice to this story.
The other flaw is a confused message. On one hand the film wants to present Charlie's point of view, which is that he was a dodgy businessman who didn't do half of what he was blamed for and he was stitched up by the establishment. The gang war with the Krays is practically omitted on the grounds that, according to Charlie, it was a media invention. On the other hand, the makers must have recognised that the audience it will attract have read the books and watched the documentaries and they'll come expecting cockney hardnuts firing shooters and breaking each others' kneecaps. Their solution is to present the torture scenes described in the trial, complete with cigarette burns, broken toes and electrocuted genitals, while having the alleged torturers appear as talking heads, claiming that what you're seeing never happened.
Michael Winterbottom used a similar technique much more successfully in 24 Hour Party People, having real life characters object to their portrayal in the film in a way that was funny and in keeping with the tone. Here it's just confusing. Why, for example, is the actor portraying Frankie Fraser denying he tortured anyone when the real Mad Frank makes a living writing books about what he did to people and joking about it on chat shows? Worse, there are so many of these scenes that it becomes repetitive and passes beyond sadism into tedium. One or two sequences would have made the point. These flaws aren't fatal but they add up. Charlie entertains for ninety minutes as a gangster drama and will probably work even better on DVD, but for all its good qualities, it can't decide whether it wants to show the reality of sixties gangland or the mythology and doesn't do a satisfying enough job of presenting either.