Mr Nice

Director: Bernard Rose
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Chloë Sevigny, David Thewlis
Runtime: 121 mins
Rating: ***

Howard Marks must be rubbing his hands with glee; not many criminals manage to have so much control over their own legacy, at least not without seeming repugnant in some way (last year’s biopic of Charles Bronson comes to mind). But nevertheless, here we are: Mr. Nice is essentially a film adaptation of the autobiography of the same name, published in 1996 shortly after Marks’ release from prison. Famed primarily for his large-scale smuggling of hashish to the UK and US – at one point he was said to control around 10% of the distribution of cannabis in the world – you get the impression throughout this film that maybe all isn’t as it seems. Major details are glossed over, and Marks is almost never the bad guy. Even the odd moment where you begin to think that he should be looking out for his family a little more, he either redeems himself moments later or ramps up the catharsis to keep us on his side. And it’s terrible, I know, but it sort of works.

Of course, issues of accuracy always plague critical analyses of biopics and documentaries, and as for this as a straightforward film, free of any questions of staying true to reality, it’s OK. Rhys Ifans performance is superb (and after seeing his uncanny portrayal of Peter Cook in Not Only, But Always, I maintain that he’s one of the most underrated actors of his generation), and Chloë Sevigny manages to be simultaneously emotional and down-to-earth; you find yourself wishing she had more lines.

Other characters, sadly, become two-bit stereotypes. David Thewlis’ portrayal of Jim McCann seems to be a sketch show “angry Irishman” type rather than an actual persona, and while Omid Djalili’s comic timing is impeccable as always, he simply isn’t given the lines to seem rounded as a character. This is The Howard Marks Show, and we’re rarely allowed to forget it.

The biggest criticism, however, has to go towards the cinematography, which just has no idea what it’s doing. We’re faced with a string of low-budget green screen effects that detract from the story, and there’s an attempt to try and smooth out the archive footage of London by filming certain shots in the same grainy, TV style. It doesn’t work. It’s strange – ultimately, the pacing’s just fine, but sometimes the style of what’s in front of you is so jarring that you feel certain scenes slow down before your eyes.

Nevertheless, it’s a compelling story. Even if it is seriously twisting the truth.


  1. As you concede, Bernard, the film is an adaptation of Marks’ autobiography, so it’s not surprising that he comes across as an (anti-)hero.

    Nevertheless, as Marks used to live in York until recently I was slightly disappointed that I couldn’t wean him back to do Q&A after a showing of the film at City Screen. Close, but no cigar.

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  2. I think you’ve got me mixed up with the director. My name’s on the right. Confusing, I know.

    Incidentally, Howard Marks is doing a Q&A at The Duchess on the 9th December; tickets are £10 or £11, not sure.

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