Plunkett & Macleane (1999)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop


Every now and again a movie amuses you in some ways and offends you in others. Plunkett & Macleane is the kind of film that never quite lives up to its potential because it gets bogged down in sludge halfway there.


Not having endured the best of luck of late, a common thief and gentleman, Macleane (Johnny Lee Millar), just happens to be trapped in a tower prison the night a carriage crashes into it, tearing a hole in the wall and permitting him to witness the murder of a highwayman. Having witnessed the unfortunate soul swallowing a priceless ruby shortly before his life was taken, Macleane escapes and later that night makes his way to the thief cemetery to dig him up and procure the ruby. This choice brings him into the path of Plunkett (Robert Carlyle), the former man's partner in crime, and when they are both captured and taken to jail, he suspects that's it. But his notoriety and manners have him in a different part of the prison than Plunkett, and after they get out (thanks to the ruby and a greedy jail warden), he comes up with a brilliant idea: to team up as Gentlemen Highwaymen and rid the rich of their jewels.


It seems an agreeable enterprise since Macleane is a tad short on cash at the moment and this will enable him to dress up and partake of the pleasures of the upper class that he appreciates so much. But his social meanderings cause him to draw the attention of Thief Taker General Chance (Ken Stott), as well as carry him into the inner circle of the Lord Chief Justice (Michael Gambon), and introduces him to the beautiful Rebecca (Liv Tyler). And sooner or later, their ruse is going to blow up in their faces.


My feelings about this movie are difficult to pin down but lean negative because in spite of its terrific costuming and set design, and the humor that is included in many of its musical choices, it's bawdy and I'm not a big fan of bawdy things. Pushing that aside for a moment, the script is so-so. It is intended to get more laughs than it ultimately does (or maybe my sense of humor rises above bathroom and sexual references) and frankly, the portions of the script without Rebecca in them seemed to drag. The male actors are good together but neither possess the on-screen chemistry to keep the film running smoothly outside the presence of their costars. Wherever Stott and Tylar are, that's where the action is terrific. It has strong moments followed by weak ones, which I can only blame on the script and its interpretation. And I must say that out of all period dancing scenes in which characters trade banter, this may be one of my favorites -- it's lovely, as are the costumes. While the performances are adequate, Alan Cummings steals the show -- not only is he gorgeous as a snotty, bisexual upper-class socialite, he's hilarious.


Content-wise, I don't even know where to start -- with the three abuses of Jesus' name and over a dozen f-words, some used sexually? The repeated sexual use of the word "buggary"? Or with the bawdiness, which starts early on and continues almost to the end? For Macleane, seducing women is a way of life and he does it whenever he feels inclined or has to -- two graphic clothed scenes contain movement and moaning; for one of them, he does it in a room full of other people who listen in and carry on a normal conversation. The second encounter leaves him with the pox. He later visits a whore house but after undressing and jumping on the nearest harlot, discovers he can't do it because he's in love with someone else. Sexual innuendos and references are made; there's a lot of cleavage on the women. Chance has an overt interest in Rebecca and on one occasion manhandles her, shoving her down on a table. He considers raping her and then decides against it, although he threatens to later. Violence includes shootings and hangings, a man being beaten and kicked almost to death, and a man putting his thumb through another man's eye socket. Blood graphically spatters when someone is shot in the head. A corpse is dug up, sliced open, and a jewel retrieved from its innards. We overhear a man giving another man encouragement as he attempts to "rid himself" of a ruby he has swallowed. Elsewhere, homosexuality in the upper classes is evident in the effeminate men.


This idea behind this tale is a clever one but for me, the unfunny sexual antics made it feel dirty. Given his unsightly habits and total lack of morality, it's also impossible to root for Macleane to be with the sweet and presumably chaste Rebecca, especially since the film asks us to believe that having seen one another four times for about five minutes each, they are madly in love. The only nice thing about it is Rebecca's exquisite violet gown but since you can see photos of it on the internet, I would suggest skipping the film completely.