Dir: Bernard Rose
The first few minutes of Mr Nice are unpromising to say the least. The problem with biopics is that knowledge of the subject often precedes the film. The fact that Mr Nice’s subject is Howard Marks, the prolific cannabis dealer who was once Britain’s most wanted man, makes for some impatience for the action to get going. Rhys Ifans’ gravelly tones narrate his valiant, if somewhat disturbing attempt to portray Marks as a teenager (no mean feat, considering Ifans is 42). There are lots of grim black and white shots of Wales and a rather unnecessary scene that follows Marks trying to skive off school. Obviously, though, Marks’ bizarre life only really became film-worthy when he had a puff on the proverbial magic dragon. Soon enough, the film snaps into colour – literally (nice symbolism there, Mr. Director) – as he inhales his first spliff.
The film is aided, of course, by the fact that Marks’ experiences make for a cracking story. His early days at Oxford put anyone who has so much as visited a library here to shame: he whiles away his hours with orgies, hashish-fuelled poetry readings and the occasional tab of LSD. Even his ageing scout joins in, which makes perfect sense – Balliol is depicted as a place of free love and frolics: Oxford’s answer to a hippie commune. How times change. Before long though, Marks realises that he always buys too much for his own personal consumption, and that’s where the trouble begins.
The comedy of the absurd situations that Marks finds himself in is brought out nicely. Much fun is had with the secret language of the dealers, including a running joke centred round the word ‘wurst’. Clearly, though, it wasn’t all fun and games. David Thewliss is excellent as Jim McCann, an unbalanced but strangely childish member of the IRA, who Marks finds himself dealing with. To avoid any doubt regarding McCann’s nationality, strains of Irish folk music accompany his every appearance. Director Bernard Rose avoids making any kind of moral judgement. Chloe Sevigny’s breathy Judy may earnestly ask ‘Why make something illegal that expands your consciousness – makes you think?’, but her tear-stricken face in later scenes gives an indication that dealing drugs is quite naughty.
Ifans’ narration and Rose’s strange, zooming camerawork lend a dreamlike quality to the film, and indeed its fast-moving plot and surreal subject matter result in Mr Nice being somewhat detached from reality. Certain moments run perilously close to cliché: the drug scene at Balliol is just a bit too groovy to be credible. But as Marks’ adventures get underway, the fact that everything seems unbelievable makes sense: driving through the Afghan desert and hiding out in hotel rooms in America are all in a day’s work. Unfortunately, though, Rose takes his time getting to the good stuff, and Mr Nice would benefit from being a great deal shorter. Rose takes for granted that the film’s subject is fascinating, and so leaves the audience hanging for longer than he should.