For all his reasonable and affable public persona, the author Iain Banks is an angry man. At least he can be. Most of his mainstream novels have sections where this anger appears on the page and Banks lets rip at numerous targets through his characters. This anger can cover religion (The Crow Road and Whit), the evils of capitalism (The Business), the horror and futility of war (A Song of Stone), American Imperialism (The Steep Approach to Garbadale) and gender politics (Canal Dreams). There are passages in all of these novels where Banks vents his spleen, often in a spectacular manner, but with Complicity he wrote a novel where this ire was relentless. It is political protest in book form and often reads like a handbook for Anarchists. It is also one of the best Scottish novels of the 1990s. Complicity is about, and by, a man who is mad as hell, and is not going to take this anymore.
In 2000 Complicity was made in to a film with Jonny Lee Miller in the lead role of reporter Cameron Colley. It disappeared without bothering cinema audiences, but it is one of those films that should be reconsidered. It is not a particularly pleasant film to watch, but then Complicity is a deliberately violent book. Banks is quoted as saying that the violence in the novel is justified as an appropriate artistic response to what consecutive Conservative governments had done to the country (the UK as a whole, but Scotland in particular). The film does it’s best to replicate this righteous vitriol, and the fact that it comes so close to succeeding perhaps explains why it wasn’t a success. What appears on page can often be overkill on screen.
The film is known in the US as Retribution, and in Japan was retitled Psycho 2001 which probably tells you all you need to know about the tone of the film. But it would be a mistake to think that this is an exploitation movie. The violence may be played out in set pieces that could have been outtakes from an Eli Roth movie, but, as in Banks’ novel, there are political questions being asked. What if people felt that justice had become meaningless when it came to politicians, financial institutions and big business? (Sound familiar?) What if individuals decided to take the law into their own hands? The unnamed assassin in Complicity answers such questions with an unnerving verve and in the most inventive manner. His targets are tortured and then murdered in ways that befits their perceived crimes. Punishment to fit the crime.
Jonny Lee Miller is well cast as the apparently morally bankrupt Colley, bringing all the easy, and sometimes sleazy, charm that was evident in Trainspotting, Hackers and Mansfield Park. It is a little strange that out of the Trainspotting gang Miller’s career has been the least successful. He can act; his performance as cyclist Graham Obree in The Flying Scotsman is very good, but he has become a supporting actor in the last ten years, and in some terrible films (Aeon Flux!) The American TV show Eli Stone, in which Lee Miller was the lead, gave hope for a revival but sadly it only lasted two seasons. He may not be the greatest actor around but he is better than his recent CV would suggest.
To view the trailer for Complicity go here, but below is a clip featuring Jonny Lee Miller and Sam West:
Lee Miller is backed by a cast that is so much better than you would expect in such an unheralded film, and they raise the action above the ordinary. Brian Cox as the psychotic investigating officer, Keeley Hawes as the duplicitous Yvonne and Paul Higgins as Colley’s childhood friend are all at their best, and there are also strong turns from Scottish acting legends such as Bill Patterson, Paul Young, Alex Norton and Andy Gray. Working together they manage to create real suspense from a story which even Iain Banks admits sometimes goes over the top. Indeed that is the point.
Despite the quality of acting Complicity is really a TV drama squeezed into a film. It would have made a perfect Channel 4 drama for instance, and it would have reached the larger audience it deserved. If you consider the quality of last year’s Red Riding trilogy, Shane Meadows’ This is England ’86, or even the TV version of Banks’ The Crow Road, then Complicity comes close to matching them, if never quite making their grade. It is worth seeking out on DVD as it is as visceral a comment on the Tory run Britain of the ’80s and early ’90s as you’ll find, but if it is a choice between the film and the original novel there’s no contest. Banks wins every time.