The real life Hatton Garden safety deposit jewel robbery happened in April 2015. It has been called the “largest burglary in English legal history” and because of the advanced age of the perpetrators – three of them were over 65 and the others no spring chickens – they became known as the pensioner burglars or “diamond wheezers”.
Film makers were quick to seize on the dramatic possibilities of the story. The low budget Hatton Garden the Heist was first off the mark and swiftly disappeared into DVD land. A television series starring Timothy Spall was due to be seen last year but is still to be screened. And last year’s movie The Hatton Garden Job had some good middle list actors led by Larry Lamb as gang leader Brian Reader but a weak script which didn’t really cut the mustard.
The producers of King of Thieves have wisely taken their time over developing their version. First things first they signed up a major star, Michael Caine to play Reader. They then commissioned skilled writer Joe Penhall to create the screenplay, which drew on the expert knowledge of journalist Duncan Campbell, who had covered the story for the Guardian newspaper. With them on board to attract the finance, director James Marsh (The Theory of Everything) then gathered together an all star, largely veteran cast.
And the film turns out to be well worth the wait. It is a really classy and entertaining heist movie, which puts a fresh spin on the tale.
It might have been tempting to turn this into a film about lovable old codgers sticking a finger up to the rich and privileged but there’s rather more to it than that. Caine wins our sympathy in the early scenes with his wife, who is dying of cancer (a touching cameo from Francesca Annis). Reader is not hard up for a bob or two from his life of crime, as we see from his very comfortable life style, but after his wife’s death, he is still in the market for one last job.
That comes up when he meets nervy young electrician Basil (Charlie Cox), who has intimate knowledge of the safety deposit vault and who puts the idea of the heist to him. Basil by the way is the only made up character in the film. There was a younger man involved but the police were never able to establish his identity.
Having established Caine’s character, the film then introduces the crime career veterans he recruits: Terry (Jim Broadbent), a nasty piece of work with a history of violence; Danny (Ray Winstone), Kenny (Tom Courtenay) and Carl (Paul Whitehouse). There is a certain amount of comedy around the advancing years of the gang as they plan and carry out the actual heist, which involves boring into the vault over the Easter holiday weekend.
Portly Danny nearly getting stuck in the gap as he’s being pushed into the vault, and Kenny, the lookout man whose advancing years keep causing him to dose off on the job. And there’s an amusing contribution from Michael Gambon as their somewhat bumbling fence.
But the film largely resists the “comic old codgers” route and the film gets most interesting towards the end of the actual heist and in the subsequent dividing up of the spoils, which bring out the characters’ ruthless side. There is no honour among these thieves.
The police investigation, which interestingly is largely female led, is effectively presented without taking attention away from the main characters and there’s some witty use of vintage footage of the main actors in their younger days.
Although the film gives Caine a star role, he doesn’t hog the limelight and it is a joy to see all these veteran actors cast against type. Even the usually lovable Courtenay as Kenny has his nasty side. And Cox, as the sad eyed and apparently wet behind the ears Basil, who has some surprises up his sleeve, more than holds his own against all those years of experience