What Are All These British Gangsters Doing in Spain?
This story is part of my weekly “Have you seen …” series where I highlight movies that I think are under-appreciated, misunderstood, or simply worth talking about. New entries are published every Wednesday. NOTICE: Spoilers follow.
Listen, I get it. Their country is fairly cold, reasonably grim, and extremely wet. Spain — and therefore sun, warmth, and relaxation —is only a short flight away. The logic is there; it makes sense to me. And yet I can’t help but feel like something else is going on here.
Not to say there aren’t other reason to be in Spain as well. For Willie Parker, the Terrence Stamp-played main character of Stephen Frears’s 1984 feature The Hit, it’s because his testimony sent some of his fellow mobsters to jail for a decade. Gal Dove, the Ray Winstone-played (and therefore slightly more Cockney-tinged) leading man of Jonathan Glazer’s 2000 masterpiece Sexy Beast, never sold out his colleagues — but Spain is still his big opportunity at escaping a life of crime.
On the surface, there’s nothing unusual about any of this: British people like to go to Spain. Gangsters, though oh-so-very different from us occupationally, presumably like many of the same tourist destinations.
Stick around these films long enough, though, and you’ll notice that Spain doesn’t stay Spain very long. Though Willie and Gal headed South to escape their past lives, those lives don’t stay past very long. They come looking for them in the form of men — very British, very lethal.
There’s an oft-thrown around concept in video game criticism known as ludonarrative dissonance, a fissure that occurs between a game’s explicit narrative and the implicit narrative of its gameplay. If, for example, a game’s story is intended to be anti-war in nature, levels that include thrilling sections of shooting and explosions undermine the overall effect of the story.
The idea could be applied to films in a number of different ways, but I want to refine it a bit here: what effect is produced in the audience when the style of a movie seems to be at lengths removed from its subject matter? When I head to the theater expecting to watch a movie about British gangster exiled in Spain, what happens to me when I watch a near action-less film that contains far more dialogue about the nature of life and death than it does organized crime?
Both Sexy Beast and The Hit have all the makings of some great “I thought I was out but they pulled me back in” action-revenge flicks, but neither Frears nor Glazer opt for anything of the sort. In The Hit, Willie is kidnapped by a murderous duo played by John Hurt and baby Tim Roth; the former’s stoic and impenetrable veneer leaves space for Willie to voice his unexpected acceptance towards his situation. He’s had a decade to prepare for his death, and now he’s ready for it to come.
Gal receives a similarly unexpected visitor in Sexy Beast, this one the psychopathic Don Logan, played by Ben Kingsley is what is certainly his best performance (yeah, fuck you Gandhi). Don wants Gal back in London for a job and isn’t too keen on leaving without him in tow. Though their circumstances may be slightly different, the core of both Gal and Willie’s experiences are the same: they may be in Spain, but England still managed to catch up to them.
Not any England, mind you: the most violent and deadly distillation of the tiny state imaginable. Kingsley’s Don enacts very little violence in his time onscreen, and Gal & co. even off him with relative ease; he still remains one of the most genuinely terrifying characters I’ve ever witnessed in a film.
Hurt’s character, whose true name is (possibly?) never quite revealed, is less volatile than Don but certainly no less menacing. That these men are the ghosts that haunt England’s criminal exiles is no coincidence, and neither is the fact that neither Willie nor Gal can truly escape their country in the manner they’d wished.
Willie, after spending the entire film in a state of equanimity as to his fate, has a fit immediately before his death once he realizes that Hurt’s character is going to execute him in the Spanish Pyrenees instead of the pre-designated killspot in Paris. His death is no longer on his own terms, the accepted end of his life sabotaged by the will of one man.
Gal fares slightly better, finishing the job intact and slightly richer, returning to Spain with no intention of going back North any time soon. Even so, Don continues to haunt him even in death — the film finishes with a grisly image of Don rising from his shallow grave with a vengeful posture.
Perhaps the most subtly striking aspect of both films is how little the audience gets of Gal and Willie’s lives before they become expats. Whatever their pasts may have been, within the confines of the movies they are little more than murder-tinged specters.
To arise one day and leave behind your country is not a small ask. Moreover, immigration—as much as we might like to pretend otherwise—is not a process that encourages integration. Being British in Spain for a long time is not to become Spanish; it is to be constantly reminded of how British you truly are.
It’s no wonder that the men sent to round up Gal and Willie are such vicious, refined portraits of the land from which they come. The guilt of the exile is the knowledge that something has been left behind, that a place remains and continues to exist even if you’ve abandoned it. When your life in England is a life of crime, the crime that follows you to Spain is the weight of Englishness chained to your ankle.
None of this is to suggest that either film is simply an allegory for understanding a certain strain of national identity — that would be the slippery slope of a hill to die on. Glazer and Frears both have their sights set on different subjects, but the kernel of Britishness that all this carries with it is impossible to ignore.
Running from your past is one thing, but nationality, as it stands today, is not something that can be so easily left behind. To mark it down to shared culture, identity, or even legal status is to ignore the numinous whole of it all — to leave one’s country is to leave some of one’s self behind with you. For many, this means losing a bit of personal history or family: as devastating an abandonment as can be imagined. In Gal and Willie’s case, the criminal is left behind, and the criminal is what eventually pursues.