The Hot Potato

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In 1969, fire broke out at a government research establishment near London. The resulting explosion obliterated its interior. This charming little comedy caper, modelled after the Ealing greats, explores what might have happened if a lump of uranium from that establishment had found its way into the hands of two East End chancers whose only thought was how much cash it might be worth.

Ray Winstone has always been at his best in comedy, and here he excels as the modest metal shop owner balancing excitement at the prospect of riches with a quiet terror of what radiation exposure might have done to him. He's a family man who loves his simple life, but when it comes to it he just might have the nerve to take on the big boys. Naturally, when word of the potato gets out, there are some dangerous people on his tail. At his side he has his young friend Danny (Jack Huston) and Danny's girlfriend, his secretary Carole (played by his daughter Lois Winstone), a hanger-on who soon develops an enthusiasm for gangster antics that startles the men. Together they travel across Europe looking for a buyer, evading double crosses and trying to figure out who's gaming who.

It's a simple story and there are no prizes for guessing how it ends, but nevertheless it's a great idea - like Kiss Me Deadly reworked for a family audience - very well rendered. It's also stylistically appealing. Howard Burden's costumes and Tim Hutchinson's production design draw on the high fashion spy chic of the early Sixties - with which the characters would of course be familiar - and dress it up in the low rent drag of a coming decade that would not be remembered for its aesthetic success. Superbly detailed sets create a strong sense of place and time but also tell us about the characters' dreams, the things they aspire to and are just falling short of. It would be hard not to root for people in this situation. Though it goes against the standard advice for set dressing, their clutter makes them human and helps to ground the sillier elements of the film.

In keeping with crime caper traditions, this picaresque film features several twee European stereotypes, slightly overplayed in places but balanced by the fact that our heroes are, of course, stereotypes themselves. There are plenty of jokes at the expense of genre clich├ęs and for the most part they work, being fond rather than smug. Most importantly, the film holds the viewer throughout, bumbling along at a gentle pace but never failing to pull out a twist when needed. When it stumbles it's carried along by good humour. They don't make 'em like this very often now, so fans of the genre should check it out.

Reviewed on: 03 Sep 2012
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The acquisition of a valuable lump of uranium leads two east end chancers into a series of scrapes.
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Director: Tim Lewiston

Writer: Tim Lewiston

Starring: Ray Winstone, Jack Huston, Lois Winstone, Colm Meaney, David Harewood, Derren Nesbit, John Lynch

Year: 2011

Runtime: 87 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

EastEnd 2012

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