Diamonds truly are a girl’s best friend in this heist thriller that has all the suspense, smarts and ’60s-era style of a “Mad Men” episode directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The girl is the long-lost Demi Moore. In one of just two lead roles she’s taken on so far this century, the actress plays Laura Quinn, the only female manager at the London Diamond Corporation.
The year is 1960, everybody smokes like chimneys, and Quinn has hit the proverbial glass ceiling. An American educated at Oxford, she’s pursued her career with a single-mindedness that’s earned her the concern and curiosity of the female staff — but not the confidence of the company’s ruling boy’s club. She’s been passed over more times than the control tower at Heathrow. But, determined to persevere, she dashes off motivational notes to herself and leaves them on her desk to greet her the following day.
What Quinn doesn’t suspect is that these private messages are also read by the night janitor, and they’ve inspired him as well. Michael Caine supplies the picture’s centerpiece performance as Mr. Hobbs, a deceptively simple man with an extraordinary plan.
Having overheard an exchange between high-level executives, Hobbs realizes that Quinn is soon to be terminated. “It’s extraordinary the conversations people will have in front of cleaners — it’s like we don’t exist,” he says with wonder, informing her of her fate during the first of a series of rendezvous. Banking on Quinn’s sense of betrayal, Hobbs offers her an opportunity for payback.
The janitor has a scheme to help himself to a Thermos-ful of stones, and he needs only the entry codes to the vault. “They wouldn’t even notice that much,” he assures his initially reluctant partner in crime. Given that the room holds most of the world’s supply of uncut gems — more than two tons — she has to concede his point.
The film was written by Edward A. Anderson and directed by Michael Radford, whose previous work includes White Mischief and Il Postino. Among its many pleasures is an unhurried pace, which allows for multiple nuanced character studies. The movie also offers plenty of nicely observed period detail, some spiffy dialogue (I love the party scene where a coworker toasts Quinn with a salute “To pressurized carbon!”), and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of twists.
Hobbs is a fabulously entertaining creation, and Caine brings him to life with the understated artistry that has distinguished his late career. While he may be the lowliest figure to walk the powerful corporation’s hallways, he’s invariably two steps ahead of everyone else. That includes Moore’s character, who’s as shocked as anyone when the full extent of the robbery is revealed.
The heist occurs at roughly the movie’s midpoint. The build-up is unrelentingly suspenseful, and the execution is white-knuckle all the way. However, what follows in the film’s second half, to the director’s immense credit, is at least as much fun. Quinn quickly falls under suspicion when an investigator comes snooping around. Behind closed boardroom doors, all hell breaks loose between London Diamond’s chairman and his chief insurer.
The former is played by Joss Ackland, a great old grump who’s probably on the short list of Dumbledores in the event Michael Gambon should ever become unavailable. Derren Nesbitt plays the scoundrel who’s been paid a fortune over the years to cover Ackland against just such a catastrophic loss, but who now seems more interested in finding loopholes than missing jewels.
The movie’s primary mystery concerns Hobbs’ true motivation for the theft. He’s not a criminal in the standard sense, after all. “Two wrongs a right do not make — that’s nonsense,” he confides to Quinn elliptically. “Sometimes, to make something right, you have to do something just as wrong.” All I’ll reveal is that the crime has nothing to do with personal gain. Something far more complex and poignant drives Hobbs, and it will lead to changes in Quinn’s life that she could never have expected and the viewer is unlikely to see coming.
Flawless is not without its minor imperfections. A plot development here and there, for example, relies a tad too heavily on coincidence. There are occasional moments when Moore’s affect is so flat she comes off as borderline embalmed. Overall, though, this is a first-rate caper piece elevated by Caine’s effortlessly elegant portrayal. The movie is wall to wall with pompous, sexist, greedy backstabbers, and it’s a hoot to watch Hobbs mop the floor with the lot of them.