Down and Out in the Eighteenth Century
This film starts off in a dark, misty night where what light there is feels sterile, which makes me think this sequence was done entirely in one of those vast studio sound stages. It's just a suspicion, and while you might see me about to suggest the whole movie has such a sterile feel, the thing is that it doesn't at all. This strange dreamlike-but-not sequence introduces our two protagonists by means of Plunkett, a thief and highwayman, unintentionally releasing Macleane, a gentleman on hard times, from debtor's prison. The two are anything but fast friends, the one ready to kill the other except for the arrival of the authorities on the scene.
But circumstance throws them together, and the dirty, nitty-gritty desperation for survival ends up showing they have a use for each other. After conniving their way our of another prison they get tossed into, they decide to formally team up. Plunkett has the skills of a thief, and Macleane has the contacts and bearing of a man in high society to know when folk will be travelling with their money. Plunkett has enough spoils set aside to clean up Macleane, and Macleane conveniently runs into his old acquaintance, Lord Rochester for the 411 on the hot social events of the season. Together, they put the social order in upheaval, and everyone is either afraid or atitter about The Gentleman Highwayman.
The difference between slogging through the dregs of the underclass and hobnobbing it with gentlemen and ladies is sharp. We leave behind the crude humor and a certain lack of shame as we enter the parlors of the rich. There is a cruelty there as well, but most are too polite to speak of it in public. To me, it was this contrast that was the most interesting thing about the film, though it fails to be developed as a true theme throughout.
There is a lady, Rebecca Gibson, who Macleane meets right away, and is also riding in the coach when these two rob her uncle. Rebecca is your typical rich girl who wants some actual excitement in her life, and is drawn to Macleane's two aspects.
There is also a villain, Chance, a man in law enforcement who has a penchant for putting out men's eyes. He's bad tempered, vile, abuses his tenuous political connections, and knows how to get what he wants - in other words, he's a great villain. But at the same time, he's a very obvious villain in terms of the story. The complexities are left for our protagonists and Rebecca, and perhaps Lord Rochester to a lesser extent.
The strangest thing about Plunkett & Macleane is the soundtrack, which occasionally eschews a score in favor of music inappropriate to the time period, even including a fairly distorted electric guitar at one point. This is no Knight's Tale, and I'll admit the music works atmospherically, but it does call attention to itself.
Plunkett really wants just to get enough money to go to America. He may be the least couth and most crude of the two, but he is at times the wiser as Macleane lets the situation go to his head. The interaction between the two is balanced and true until the end when the desire for a big dramatic flourish overpowers the realism of their relationship.
Plunkett & Macleane is simultaneously a high art period piece and a buddy crime flick, a somewhat tricky feat, but well executed in that respect. It does stumble a bit in other respects, but if you ignore the otherworldly opening, maintains an enthralling pace to the end.
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