In the early 30's, fascism and organised crime were rife. The Italian Sabinis and the English White family joined forces to form a criminal underworld. Meanwhile, two new gangsters, Jack “Spot” Comer (Terry Stone), “small part Jewish social crusader, big part thug”, and Billy Hill (Leo Gregory) are trying to get involved.
We reconvene in 1936 with Oswald Mosely bringing his British union of fascist Black shirts to London’s East End. Comer sets out to stop him and clean up Whitechapel, before being sentenced to six months for grievous bodily harm, inciting unrest and attacking the police. The film re-introduces Hill: an ambitious North London burglar, while robbing a jewellery store and follows the criminals’ rise, fall and shifty antics for the rest of its duration.
Despite charting fresh (for film) historical terrain, Once Upon a Time in London treads familiar ground in terms of its stereotypes and slack narrative. Watching shallow, flatpack/capped career criminals cuss, cut and clump each other with clubs and blades within a dysfunctional plot, is trying and cumbersome. The scattershot story unravels with the leaden drift of a checklist, without flair, ingenuity, embedded themes or in alignment with a character arc.
An apt visual tone is established via Richard Chester’s salty blues score, backed by an opening credit sequence featuring ghosting newspapers over digitised grainy “stock” footage. Meanwhile, Rumley’s grubby London interiors are part presented with burnt umber and dirty bronzes as though viewed through stale ale and blood dotted bubble wrap, while dank, cobbled backstreets under charcoal skies counteract this to give London a post-apocalyptic kitchen sink air.
The costumes, production and acting are fantastic, but posh baubles don’t bring a dead tree back to life, as OUATIL’s flaws lie within key components (plastic characters and slack narrative). Despite Rumley being a visionary, this a trying skive. With a striking eye on visual style, tepid substance stagnates and corrodes due to the lack of a beating heart. The plot block and corny hoodlums, make OUATIL seem no great stretch off the beaten track, which is a shame considering the potential in its uncharted historical subject matter.
Once Upon A Time is released today.
Words by Daniel Goodwin.
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