A Very British Gangster

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PARK CITY -- From his girth to his fondness for family, Manchester mob boss Dominic Noonan could be Tony Soprano's English cousin. Donal MacIntyre, one of the UK's foremost undercover journalists, was granted total access to make "A Very British Gangster," a fascinating portrait of a larger-than life crime figure. Documentary seems like a natural for a savvy cable outlet.

Like Tony, Noonan is a complex character -- a brute who will cut off a dog's head to make a point and a pillar of the community who puts on fireworks for the neighborhood kids. And on top of everything, he's gay.

All the conventions of gangster films are here -- murder, revenge, family, guilt, even the church. Three major trials for kidnapping, torture and narcotics give the film its shape as Noonan gets off twice and isn't as lucky the third time. Of his 39 years, he has spent 22 of them behind bars.

Noonan got started in the business and made his reputation high-jacking armored security vans. Ostensibly he now runs a legitimate security business of his own, but even he can't keep a straight face about how he makes his money. Police estimate that his family has made $8 million in heist and bank robberies alone.

He prefers to work with a young crew, some no more than 17, toughs with buzz cuts who look like they stepped out of central casting. Noonan also surrounds himself with his extended family -- two kids of his own, numerous nieces and nephews, a godson and his cousin Eileen, who opens her house to kids who have nowhere else to go. Despite his wealth and power, Noonan has never left the neighborhood.

Sharing the spotlight with him is his eleven-year-old son Buddy, who wants to grow up to be a boxer, and his nephew Sean, who aspires to be a singer like Frank Sinatra and performs for weddings, funerals and acquittals.

The biggest set piece in the film is the funeral of Noonan's brother, who was stabbed by his drug dealer. Trailed by a brigade of bag-pipers, the deluxe coffin, adorned with scenes from the last supper, is laid to rest as Sean sings a rendition of "My Way" that moves Noonan to tears. Such is the power of the Noonan clan in the community that schools and businesses close down for the funeral.

Noonan really functions as the godfather of the neighborhood, with people preferring to come to him instead of the cops with all sorts of disputes and issues. "A Very British Gangster" is not only Noonan's story but a profile of a community dealing with poverty and drugs, and seeing no way out. In a sense, Noonan and his cronies are born into a life of crime.

With his doughy face, shaved head and engaging spirit, Noonan is an ideal leading man, but he is not a character you want to cross. In one scene, MacIntyre is filming him on the street telling a story when some people off-camera are making noise. His eyes grow cold and his mood turns dark as he warns them in no uncertain terms to shut up or else.

MacIntyre captures all the nuances without glorifying a despicable character. The film is beautifully shot by Mike Turnbull and Nick Manley, including a moody black and white scene in the cemetery and a lovely crane shot looking out at the doomed neighborhood. MacIntyre has also used an impressive array of British rock and rap to create emotional connections to this violent but fascinating world apart.

A Very British Gangster
A Dare Films production
Credits: Director: Donal MacIntyre; Producer: MacIntyre; Executive Producer: Chris Shaw; Director of Photography: Mike Turnbull, Nick Manley; Editor: Sally Hilton.
No MPAA rating, running time: 97 minutes.

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