ark Rylance recently implied that being in movies isn’t much cop (he said acting in the theatre was a “thousand times more enjoyable”). Which adds another layer to his extraordinary performance in this American gangster thriller. The 62-year-old British legend doesn’t look bored. He seems to be having the time of his life.
In 1950s Chicago, working-class Brit Leonard, aka “English” (Rylance), tenderly creates suits for macho mobsters. Ingratiating and Savile Row-trained, Leonard ensures the hoodlums are dressed to kill. They keep his business afloat and, by the by, use his tiny shop as a safe drop-off point for money and mysterious packages.
One of these packages tips off two young hoods – Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and Francis (Johnny Flynn) – that their organisation contains a “rat”. Over the course of a long, snowy night, a bloody game of cat and mouse ensues with the players including Leonard, Richie and Francis. alongside Leonard’s poised, smart and bitter secretary Mable (Zoey Deutch) and Richie’s kingpin dad, Roy (Simon Russell Beale). The action is all but totally confined to the shop’s three rooms. Who – if anyone – will make it out alive?
The Outfit is a bit like Jane Campion’s sublimely weird Western, The Power of the Dog, only in reverse. Benedict Cumberbatch’s character starts out hard and gets softer. That’s not what happens, here. Suffice to say, what Leonard has up his immaculately cut sleeves made my jaw drop.
Rylance’s tour de force, though frequently devastating, spills over with giddy humour. Our hero’s eyes are as twinkly as those of The Fast Show tailors, Ken and Kenneth. It’s positively surprising that Leonard never says “Suits you Sir!”
Beale, on the other hand, doesn’t have a huge amount to do and initially struggles with the Chicago accent. The death of this great English actor’s dignity, for a while, seems imminent – but the crisis is averted and he and Rylance share a riveting scene where an on-edge Roy and Leonard handle each other’s tools. Flynn is solid; so are Deutch and Nikki Amuka-Bird (in a small but crucial role).
The Outfit’s director and co-writer is Graham Moore, whose screenplay for The Imitation Game won him an Oscar. Born and raised in Chicago, Moore is obviously fascinated by the British class system. Here, he cleverly subverts all sorts of clichés concerning what it means to be English, but ironically he’s on more wobbly ground when it comes to the Yanks. Every time Richie opened his mouth I wanted to yell “Shush!” Just for once, could the first-born son of an alpha male NOT be a spoilt, weak, insecure hot-head? Sonny Corleone is one of the best characters in movie history, but his clones are a drag.
Several of the plot twists, too, are creaky, and the visuals a tad stagey. The atmosphere’s meant to be claustrophobic, but sometimes we just feel hemmed in (though to be fair, The Outfit was shot during the pandemic).
Still, don’t pass up the chance to meet Leonard. Rylance’s film career, launched by Bridge of Spies, is going through an especially brilliant patch. He’s the leading man in droll biopic The Phantom of the Open (out next month) and he’s in the new Terrence Malick. Rylance’s heart may belong to the theatre, but the camera adores him. The old faker… he’s in a class of his own.
The Outfit has just screened at the Berlin Film Festival and will be in UK cinemas from April 8