Deep into Ridley Scott’s irresistible new entertainment, John Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, remarks that he prefers things to people. Things are, you see, “exactly what they appear to be”.
Really? All the Money in the World is, I suppose, a thing. But it is not quite what it appears to be. Christopher Plummer – eyes like slits, mouth always alert to some grim, concealed joke – looks to have been hired to play Getty. No uninformed civilian would suspect that any unconventional strategies had been employed. You and I, however, know that, following revelations of sexual misconduct, Kevin Spacey was extracted from the supposedly finished film and, with just a month to go before release, Plummer was inserted into the resulting spaces.
It is a tribute to the film-makers that, after initially searching for the seams, most viewers will quickly forget about this peculiarity. Such a person may note that, in an early scene between Plummer and Michelle Williams, you never see both faces in the same shot. But you will catch such clues only if you are on the lookout for them.
It helps that Plummer has such fun with the (not inconsiderable) role. As he simmers in his vast Surrey mansion, resting bony hand on bony chin before a roaring fire, it’s hard not to think of the irredeemable rich ancients in longer Dickens novels.
Like those books, All the Money in the World is reassuringly convinced about the corrupting influence of great wealth (reassuringly, because few of us will be so corrupted). This is the story of John Paul Getty III’s abduction in 1973. Bustled away by small-time hoods in Rome, the mogul’s grandson (the excellent, unrelated Charlie Plummer) was later ransomed for $17 million.
Getty refused to pay, noting that: “I have 14 other grandchildren, and if I pay one penny now I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” Gail Harris (Williams), the boy’s mother, had little money of her own, and her estranged husband John Paul Getty jnr (Andrew Buchanan) was then too strung-out to be of much use.
In this version of John Pearson’s nonfiction book, Gail finds herself kicked about the world with Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a Getty fixer. He initially suspects the young man may have hoaxed his own kidnapping. Evidence soon arrives to the contrary. Somewhere in Calabria, Roman Duris’s scenery-munching hoodlum comes close to bonding with his charge.
Like so many recent films set in this era, All the Money in the World has, perhaps, a little too much fun with its wigs, its flares and its scene-setting rock. The flashback featuring Time of the Season by the Zombies will remain 2018’s most on-the-nose music cue until the arrival of Creedence back-dropping Vietnam in Spielberg’s imminent The Post. Find some new old music, for heaven’s sake.
This remains, however, among the most satisfyingly propulsive films that the too-prolific Scott has delivered this century. There is little sense of individuality to it. But every actor fleshes out every character to a satisfying degree. Williams is particularly fine – patrician vowels aloft – as a mother who refuses to grieve as others demand she should. One particularly weird incident, though apparently drawn from fact, could have been plucked unaltered from The Prisoner. Those old enough to remember the story’s defining moment will be happy to hear that it is relayed in gruesome detail. The final showdown is properly tense.
Strange to relate, it is, nonetheless, Plummer’s performance and the surrounding treatment of the senior Getty’s life that lodges most strongly in the mind. He was not just the richest man in the world. He was the richest man there had ever been in the world. Yet we see him washing his own shirts in an upmarket hotel. He has an old red phone box installed in his mansion.
Well, maybe that’s how you get to be that rich in the first place.