'Flawless' Puts A Jewel of a Tale In a Perfect Setting

As a mysterious janitor in early-1960s England, Michael Caine helps set an impeccable tone for the heist story.
As a mysterious janitor in early-1960s England, Michael Caine helps set an impeccable tone for the heist story. (Magnolia Pictures)
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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

"Flawless," a period yarn about diamond theft, tight-lipped secrets and moral payback, brings a deeply satisfying catharsis -- the breaking of the old boy network, an entrenched brotherhood created to protect the privileged from the rest of us. And it does so with an entertainingly nostalgic journey to old Britain -- that world we remember from long-ago Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean movies.

Who could be more appropriate to usher us there than Michael Caine, the screen's go-to Londoner who played Alfie in 1966, Alfred the butler in 2005's "Batman Begins" and about 90 fascinating Englishmen in between?

As a mysterious janitor, he's half of an unlikely duo that takes on the London Diamond Corp. in 1960, a monopolistic enterprise of deep vaults, secret memorandums and smoke-filled star chambers. The other half is Laura Quinn (Demi Moore), the company's top female executive, who has recently dented her head against the glass ceiling.

Passed over for a top promotion, she's richly motivated. Or so thinks insurance investigator Finch (Lambert Wilson), who is charged with finding the perpetrators of a massive diamond robbery that has left the company's vault completely empty.

Is Laura part of this? And what does the janitor know? The joy of this movie, which also features Joss Ackland as a memorably intimidating, Afrikaner-accented boss, is in its gradual revelation of deep-seated intrigue.

Narratively speaking, the movie's an extended flashback. We choose to forget the distracting opening spectacle of a much older Moore recounting this story in obvious makeup. It's part of a framing device, set in the jarring present of cellphones, text messaging and diffident postmodern journalists.

Instead, we'd rather extol "Flawless" for its moody atmosphere of a bygone time, not so much the actual era, but the way it was depicted in movies. It's filmed in color, but its tones are subdued, as if harking to a black-and-white age, just before London started swinging. We can feel the culture of yesteryear, not just in the tightly buttoned suits and pocket watches, the leather briefcases and men's hats, but in the strictures of the patriarchal order.

Even the names ring of classic, older films. Caine plays Mr. Hobbs, the sort of character you might expect to appear -- at some disturbing moment, of course -- in a Hitchcock murder mystery. And Moore's Laura Quinn smacks of dark, elegant figures, such as Gene Tierney's femme fatale in 1944's "Laura."

Although we hardly condone smoking, it's practically refreshing to watch characters light up so casually. In light of the politically correct hysteria attached to the depiction of smoking in films, we almost get a buzz. There's Laura offering Finch a cigarette from the box she keeps at her desk. (He refuses, the fink.) And there she is again, lost in thought and puffing away . . . in a bubble bath! Those smoke rings create an atmosphere of un-frantic but nonetheless potent storytelling that we also miss. It's a pleasure, at least for an hour and a half, to tread those old streets again.

Flawless (108 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is rated PG-13 for brief strong language.

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