Heard the one about the Anthony Hopkins-Toni Collette-Ben Mendelsohn-Russell Crowe movie about a time and motion expert called in to fuck over the workforce of a small family-run business, directed by the guy who made ‘The Man Who Sued God’, that’s arguably one of the best movies you’ve never seen?
No joke. I saw ‘Spotswood’ at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema – the East Midlands’ beacon for independent and arthouse cinema – on its first release in the early 1990s. Time robbed me of any definitive recollection of the movies, except for an hilarious extended set-piece based an a slot-car race, but I always remembered that I’d enjoyed it.
A couple of decades have passed and I’d got used to mentioning the film to people only to be met with quizzical expressions. Or responses along the lines of “Anthony Hopkins and Russell Crowe in the same movie? Nah, you must have dreamed. I’d have remembered that!” My assertions that, actually, not only did the movie exist but Crowe played a greaser in a hotrod with ambitions to become a corporate sell-out tended to meet with excuses being made and the other party swiftly departing.
I found ‘Spotswood’ for £2.49 on Amazon recently. A panned-and-scanned print that looks like a transfer – albeit an unnaturally good one – from VHS. But what the hell? I got to see it again. And it holds up. It holds up and then some.
Hopkins plays Errol Wallace, an efficiency expert who has just completed an exhaustive study of a major car manufacturer and whose report recommends the lay off of 480 workers. The MD (the film is set the late 1960s, before Managing Directors disappeared up their own rectal passageways and started calling themselves Chief Executive Officers) prevaricates, leading to Wallace’s partner engaging in underhanded practices in order to force the issue.
Meanwhile Wallace takes the reins on the next project, an assessment of Ball’s moccasin factory, a stuck-in-the-50s enterprise whose MD (Alwyn Kurts) is secretly selling off assets in order to keep his full complement of workers employed. Amongst these individuals are up-and-coming salesman Kim Barry (Crowe); good-natured but cringingly naïve despatch boy Carey (Mendelsohn); Wendy (Collette), Carey’s co-worker whose romantic overtures he blindly overlooks; and Cheryl (Rebecca Rigg), Ball’s daughter – temping at the firm prior to embarking on “a full-time modelling career” – for whose affections Kim and Carey find themselves unlikely rivals.
The story arc is predictable: things turn ugly at the auto-plant while Wallace re-engages with the human side of things at Ball’s ailing factory, eventually coming through with the business plan that revitalizes the business and safeguards the workforce’s jobs. I make no apologies for not throwing up a spoiler alert. ‘Spotswood’ is so whimsical and guileless, it’s up there with ‘Local Hero’ as the closest anyone has come to making an Ealing comedy in the last half a century.
The performances are pitch perfect, Mark Joffe’s direction is commendably underplayed (there’s barely a scene in this film that you can’t immediately imagine being utterly ruined and drowned in schmaltz by a Hollywood director), Ellery Ryan’s cinematography effortlessly evokes a time and a place, and there are some inspired and yet unforced musical cues on the soundtrack. Subject of which, the (deliberately) awful garage band cover of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ over the opening credits is toe-curlingly hilarious.
If you’ve never seen ‘Spotswood’ before – or, as seems to be the cultural denominator, even heard of it – I guarantee you’ll benefit from seeking it out. Not only do you get Hopkins and Crowe sharing the screen, but it’s the only movie that features a slot-car race as tense, gripping and imbued with everything-to-play-for desperation as the final bout in ‘Rocky’ or any of the green baize duels in ‘The Hustler’.