As its title rather cleverly alludes, All the Money in the World is about impossible wealth and the gravitational force it exerts on everyone around it. It begins rather in the manner of Citizen Kane (1941), with a patchwork portrait of John Paul Getty the man who - we are told several times - is not only the richest man in the world, but “the richest man in the history of the world” (as though that were something one could reliably calculate).
Paulo (J.P. Getty’s grandson - played by Charlie Plummer - no relation to Christopher, sadly) provides an introductory voice-over, in which he explains that the ultra-rich “ ... look like you, but we’re not you.” This is an interesting message to receive in 2017, when ten years of global economic mismanagement, manipulation and austerity have created a class of super-rich people who are seemingly entirely oblivious to the suffering their impossible wealth and comfort inflicts upon others. I’m not sure if this film wants us to feel sorry for them, up there on their Mount Olympus of cash, or be scared of them.
Getty Snr. is obsessed with money. He spends his every waking hour alone, in a dark, cold room, watching the ticker-tape as it tells him how his stocks and shares are faring. In hotel rooms, he washes his own underwear in the sink, to save a few dollars on tips. He has a pay phone in his mansion - for guests to use. He knows the price of everything ... And the value of nothing.
But this ‘they’re not really human’ description certainly goes some way to explaining the old man’s extraordinary reaction when his grandson is kidnapped and a ransom is demanded. Even though the sum demanded is pocket money for him, he won’t pay. He won’t capitulate to threats, he is used to having things his own way and the possible death of his grandson is not sufficient motivation for him to yield that position.
This, of course, sets him in direct conflict with Paulo’s mother, Gail Harris. She’s the one person on Earth who doesn’t want his money - has turned it down in the past, in fact - but terrible irony has put her in the position of needing his money.
Inevitably, Plummer’s performance dominates the film, he’s magnetic, you literally can’t take your eyes off him when he’s on screen. But credit, too, must go to Michelle Williams whose Gail must fight her way through the incomprehensible labyrinth surrounding Getty, then force the monster at the centre to give a damn about events unfolding down here in the real world.
Williams doesn’t play the role as a tearful hysteric; instead she is cool and cynical throughout. She is resilient and, it turns out, she needs to be. You can feel the mounting tension, as the days become weeks become months, with her constantly on a knife-edge, teetering on the brink of hysteria but never succumbing. She can’t afford to, as she puts it “I’m fighting an empire”.
|Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg facing the press over the short-lived 'reshoots pay' scandal.
One has to acknowledge what a monumental achievement Plummer’s performance is, given that he had just a few days of preparation, before performing his entire role in ten frantic days. Does one need to mention that Plummer is 88? As you doubtless know, he was brought in to replace the disgraced Kevin Spacey. This decision was made by director Ridley Scott instantly and with total disregard for the seeming impossibility of the proposal and, as such, is one of the most remarkable behind-the-scenes stories of any recent film.
The cast was reassembled at a moment’s notice, locations were re-acquired, sets re-dressed, a crew recalled and a plethora of scenes were re-shot with the new Getty front and centre. Shooting additional scenes within the Getty mansion is one thing - one large stately home looks much like another and, once the props and lights are in place, you’re good to go ... But to shoot a sequence in the Coliseum in Rome - and then to shoot it again a few months later ... that will have required some remarkable negotiating and string-pulling on behalf of the production crew. That this is one of the most visually beautiful sequences in the film, speaks volumes about the professionalism of Scott and his crew.
With all of this activity swirling around him and, what’s more, with the eyes of the world now firmly fixed on the film because of the Spacey controversy, Plummer gives a note-perfect performance. He is utterly convincing. It’s his role and it always was. The notion of a younger man playing the role with a face full of prosthetics is laughable. Old man Getty is a chilling, loathsome creature, entirely consumed within the madness of his own self-importance. With no trace of irony, he insists that he is a Roman emperor reincarnated and must build himself a grand Roman villa.
|When in Rome. Young Paulo coming to terms with his grandfather's obsession with ancient Emperors.
The film’s first two acts unfurl at a fairly leisurely pace as Williams jets back and forth trying to negotiate her son’s release and Mark Wahlberg accompanies her, with Getty’s instructions to deal with the matter “as quickly and cheaply as possible”. Then Paulo is ‘sold’ to a financier, someone who is determined to realise his asset - and the drama picks up a gear.
In order to motivate the Getty’s, young Paulo is mutilated and it becomes increasingly obvious that his fate hangs in the balance. Scott manages to ring the maximum dramatic impact out of this. Then Wahlberg’s fixer, Fletcher Chase, comes into his own for a cat-and-mouse dénouement, which is genuinely exhilarating edge-of-the-seat stuff, mixing high drama with action movie thrills and Shakespearean tragedy.
All the Money in the World could have gone so desperately wrong - but Scott’s control and experience pulls the film through - and brings us Christopher Plummer on searing form. I don’t think anyone would mind losing a gold statue to him on Oscar night - because it wouldn’t be a ‘lifetime achievement’ award, one of those ‘sorry we missed you when you deserved it’ awards; it would be an entirely deserved and fitting recognition of a bravura performance.
|Does this look like the face of everyone's favourite grandad?
Dir: Ridley Scott
Script: David Scarpa
Dur: 133 mins