Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Flawless? - Would you settle for multifaceted?

Flawless opens on an interview. A haughty young reporter puts her cell phone down for long enough to patronize an old lady with a question about her not so successful career as a manager working for London Diamond in the 1960s. The old woman, Laura Quinn (Demi Moore), responds with a few enigmatic remarks, then pulls an enormous diamond out of her pocket,explains that she stole it and leaves the reporter with a manuscript. A heist caper, of sorts, unfolds from the manuscript. Much of this film is occupied by Laura Quinn, a bright, hard working beauty who suggests all the right decisions at London Diamond (a fictionalized Central Selling Organization -see historical note below) but can't get ahead thanks to sexism in the old boys club. Passed over for promotion year after year, Quinn's frustration boils over when Hobbs (Michael Caine), a mysterious janitor, tells her she's about to be fired. Why? Because her brilliant strategy to keep the Russians in the cartel is so secret that it must be confined to only the most senior management - she will actually get the axe because she's too junior to be trusted with knowledge of her own idea. Hobbs has a heist all planned and he's looking for an accomplice, someone like Quinn, to steal the vault combination.

Hobbs is a surprise package. This janitor on the brink of retirement is more than a would-be diamond thief, he's planned a master theft with a target, a motive and a modus operandi that are all far more than Quinn bargained for. Quinn struggles with the pressure as Hobbs takes control. Lon Di's executives (see historical note) battle with its insurors (see historical note). Lon Di tries to keep the theft quiet as insurance investigator Finch heads in the right direction, but will he put it together in time?

There is real suspense here, will the theft succeed, what's Hobb's really up to, how does Laura Quinn emerge from the heist to become the old woman we meet in the opening interview? Caine's understated Hobbs hits just the right notes, saving a character that might seem too good to be true in lesser hands. Moore does reasonably well as a bright, hard working executive and a panicky co-conspirator but stumbles when the film dwells overlong on her role as sexism victim. Demi is just not that convincing as an executive who's unceasing and unrequited devotion to the company has left her on the brink of cat ladydom, partly because the film as a whole bogs down on this issue at the same time it raises and resolves the mystery of Hobb's motive in the blink of an eye. The sexism theme is worth developing, but it could be more powerful with a lighter touch, one meshed more carefully with the suspenseful plot strains.

Not flawless, but an enjoyable film that more than held my attention, even as the back end of a double feature on a Monday night.

Historical Note - The fictional London Diamond is based closely upon a real organization, known in the 1960s as the Central Selling Organization, now the Diamond Trading Corporation. This organization effectively controlled the global supply of diamonds to maintain prices, not unlike today's OPEC (although OPEC, as an organization of governments, has no problem with the antitrust laws that led to criminal prosecution and civil claims against the CSO) . The CSO was essentially dominated by De Beers. De Beers Chairman from the 1950s into the 1980s was the South African billionaire Harry Oppenheimer. Although portrayed as a rough, gruff Boer in Flawless, Harry was the Oxford educated son of an English peer with a German Jewish background. Harry was also Chairman of Anglo-American, a global mining power with extensive gold and platinum operations. His son Nicky has succeeded him. Nothing wrong with a little dramatic license, but the Oppenheimers are an interesting family - worthy of a movie in their own right. Aside from being one of the world's richest men, Harry was an Anglican who supported Jewish causes throughout his life and a leading figure in South African politics despite his opposition to apartheid.

Lloyd's of London is not actually an insurer, but an intermediary for the "names", wealthy private individuals who underwrite the risks insured and are, as Flawless notes, personally liable for payment. For the names, the policies are an investment (usually just part of a much larger diversified portfolio). A name might participate in the risk on several policies, collecting a pro rata share of the premiums and return on required reserves and betting that the income from fractions of several policies would outweigh the cost of any claims paid down the road. No name would bet his entire fortune on a single policy.

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