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Irish Voice Entertainment
The Gay Gangster
July 3, 2008
In A Very British Gangster Irish director Donal MacIntyre grants us an all access pass into the Noonan crime dynasty, a second-generation family of Irish stock. For the first time ever, a gang of contemporary criminals have opened their lives to the cameras to reveal the trials and tribulations of their leader Dominic Noonan, as he lurches from one criminal trial to the next. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the film’s Dublin-born director.
WATCHING A Very British Gangster, the award winning documentary film which opens here on July 18, you have to wonder if director Donal MacIntyre has a bit of a death wish. After all he’s been consorting with men who make Al Pacino and Robert DiNiro’s famous screen characters look like sweethearts.
“I first met Dominic Noonan, the head of the crime family, in Britain’s high security Belmarsh Crown Court,” MacIntyre told the Irish Voice. “He told me, ‘Everybody I know wants to kill you. My brother was asked to whack you — I can see the job isn’t done.’ It’s a chat-up line you’ll remember. It led me on an unforgettable path.”
By far the most intimidating hood in Britain, Dominic Noonan, 42, is the bald headed central figure in MacIntyre’s powerful new film, a quick witted capo de capi with a working class Irish background who legally changed his name to the aristocratic sounding Lattlay Fottfoy, an acronym for the family motto: “Look after those that look after you, f*** off those that f*** off you.”
Halfway through the new film we learn that the mysterious, heavyset father of two is in fact gay, and surprisingly enough this unexpected information only serves to make him more intimidating. There are still some people who think gay men can never be tough guys, after all; here in America the Mafia usually whacks any leader who’s discovered to be gay.
But across the sea in Britain the hardest nut in the Manchester criminal underworld is an openly gay Irish man. So clearly someone needs to upgrade their idea of what a gay person looks like.
Half way through watching A Very British Gangster you can actually hear the doors of the Oscar Wilde school of high camp clanging shut forever, because Noonan is no one’s idea of a powder puff. We see him in church praying (the Noonan clan are devout Roman Catholics) and even supporting the local boxing club.
In Britain gay gangsters have always been a cultural staple, from Robin Hood and his Merry Men (in tights) to the two most famous British hoods of the last century, Reg and Ronnie Kray. When the police finally arrested them in a dawn raid, the press reported how they’d found Reg in bed with a girlfriend, and Ron in bed with a young blond lad.
It surprised no one to discover that one of the East End’s best-loved villains was gay. Half of London had already heard how he had shot George Cornell in The Blind Beggar because he’d called Ron “a fat poof.”
What makes A Very British Gangster such a special film is that it takes you right inside one of Britain’s most dangerous crime families. For the first time ever in Britain, a gang of contemporary criminals open up their lives to reveal their brutal world of guns and grinding poverty, the world of a hard bitten underclass that relies upon gangsters for justice, rather than police. And it’s not make believe or dressing up.
Depending on who you are, who you know and what you stand for, Dominic Noonan will be your best friend or your worst enemy. He knows every turn in the streets of Manchester, and he knows the people and their hopes and fears.
He also knows that no matter what he does, no one will ever dare to speak out against him. Witnesses for the prosecution tend to leave the country shortly before Noonan’s court dates.
MacIntyre’s film follows Noonan’s tribulations over three years, as he lurches from one criminal trial to the next. Rarely does a film gain this level of access to such a hidden world, and what’s revealed is completely fascinating.
Day in and day out MacIntyre’s cameras follow a terrifying trail of kidnapping, torture, narcotics and murder. And behind all the macho bravado and backslapping, there’s also a poignant world where a community struggles with poverty, violence and drugs.
“This is a gangster movie, first and foremost,” says MacIntyre. “All the universal gangster themes are there — death, family, revenge, and innocence. There are murders, funerals, trials and acquittals, but in this instance all the actors, the set and the consequences are very real. It’s a movie disguised as a documentary.”
Born in Dublin in 1966, MacIntyre (who has a twin brother) was one of five children brought up by his mother after their father left in 1970. Over the years he has gone on to become one of Britain’s best-known investigative journalists, a job that has made him enemies and opened him up to death threats, kidnapping attempts and assaults.
On several occasions he has even been forced to live in safe houses with bodyguards. But no amount of intimidation will prevent him from getting the story or capturing their world.
“There was a script written when these guys were born, leaving them pre-destined to a life of crime,” says MacIntyre. “When I walked on to ‘the set’ it meant walking into their world, a world that every moviegoer is familiar with: one of murders, kidnappings and drug deals, though not necessarily in that order.”
Noonan, we discover, lives in a house surrounded by a score of tough young men, his protégés, like some kind of modern day Fagan, dispensing advice through the grim voice of experience, to who knows what ends. Each of these young men clearly hero-worships him, and you can see a new generation of street toughs being raised right before your eyes. It’s an extraordinary sight, unlike anything you’ve ever seen at the movies.
One of the many ironies of A Very British Gangster is its title. Neither the director nor the film’s subject actually are British. Instead, one man comes from a hard working Irish underclass on the fringes of British society and the other comes from a well spoken South Dublin suburb, yet they understand each other, it emerges, very deeply.
Some critics have actually questioned the strength of the bond that grows between subject and filmmaker, wondering if in the end the film can even be called a documentary if the necessary critical distance is sometimes, they claim, missing.
Noonan, they suggest, gets to play out his own overblown hard man fantasies for the cameras and MacIntyre occasionally indulges him. But there’s no question that the results make for compulsive viewing.
Acting like a latter day Irish chieftain, filtered through the prism of The Sopranos, Noonan sets himself up as a kind of social worker and his entire inner city community comes to him with their complaints.
In other words, at times the film is shockingly wholesome and even strangely funny, despite the non-stop court cases that Dominic and his murderous brother Dessie (later stabbed to death) have to attend.
“I feel there’s a hint of lavender about you, Dominic,” says MacIntyre at a boxing club that’s actually sponsored by the Noonan’s. Without missing a beat Noonan openly admits that he’s gay. It’s just one more surprising confession in an already deeply unnerving new film.
A Very British Gangster opens on July 18 at Cinema Village Theater, 22 East 12th Street, New York and in Los Angeles at the Culver Plaza.
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