FLAWLESS is a classy, smart, and fiendishly sly piece of filmmaking that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat. There are herrings aplenty here, red and other, courtesy of writer Edward Andersen, who has a knack for subverting audience expectations by neatly playing into them. Cool and crisp direction by Michael Radford takes this caper flick and turns it into a minor classic of the genre. The only thing we can be sure of as the story starts to unfold is that there is a heist, a ludicrously large diamond will go missing for 40 years or so, and so will Laura Quinn (Demi Moore).
It’s told in flashback, as Laura (Moore in credible age makeup) tells the story to a reporter of her time almost fifty years before as the first female executive at London Diamond. It wasn’t an illustrious career. She was regularly passed over for promotions in favor of younger, male-er co-workers, but she did keep a stiff upper lip. She also plugged along, coming up with brilliant strategies for working around and with the unruly political climate in South Africa, a country that London Di, as it is affectionately known, has been running like a fiefdom for decades as it exploits the people there with the same callousness as it does the diamond mines. Her listener, a successful woman not yet thirty is fairly interested in using Laura’s story in the feature she is writing about the proto-women’s movement, but when Laura pulls out a bauble as big as a pigeon’s egg and nonchalantly says that she stole it from London Di, said journalist is riveted.
As for the idea for the heist, that wasn’t Laura’s, but rather that of Mr. Hobbs (Michael Caine). He’s the genial janitor who always has a smile and a good word for everyone as he empties the trash and waxes the marble floors, including the ones right outside London Di’s vault, where the world’s largest supply of diamonds is kept while being sorted, cut, and otherwise gotten ready for market. He has also been keeping all the encouraging notes that Laura writes to herself and then tears up and tosses into the trash. In fact, he uses the last one to anonymously send Laura a ticket to the cinema. She shows, and the film is, suitably enough, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, about a London bank job that Hobbs likes well enough, except the part where they try to get away with it in broad daylight in the middle of London.
With unpretentious avuncular charm, and the subtlety of a con man at the top of his game, he gently reels Laura in, sealing the deal by telling her that she is about to be fired. Hobbs, you see, is a smart man whom fate and the class system in Britain has kept in the working class rather than letting him make his mark by moving up the ladder socially and economically. His motives for involving Laura are deliciously ambiguous, though clues are dropped. Does he feel a sense of empathy for her plight, a woman trying to buck the old boys network? Is she just the easy mark he needs by way of an accomplice to pull off the job? It doesn’t matter. Once Laura confirms, with her own bit of subterfuge, that Hobbs is right about her future with the firm, or rather lack thereof, she is ready to use any means necessary to secure a future for herself with what Hobbs can spirit out one night in his battered old thermos. Justifying it all by assuring Hobbs and herself that the stones that can fit in there won’t be noticed by the firm, but will set them both up for life, financially, she works it out in her own mind that it’s a victimless crime.
The position of an ambitious woman in 1960 is examined with visual cues rather than a strident dialectic of sexism back then. This is colorless world of various shades of black and white, and Laura plays along. She is the first one to arrive in the morning, the last one to leave at night, she has no social life and is at all times tough, unemotional, and trying very hard not to rub it in about being so much smarter than the men around her. But while she might be wearing a gray suit, there is a piquant streak in Laura, there is a vibrant slash of red on her lips and polishing the ends of her fingertips. Rather than softening the hard edges of her tailored suits, it signals a fierceness that in men would be considered sensible ambition, but in her is something else entirely, something foreign and a little unsettling.
Moore is adequate in a very well-written role that does much of the work for her. She’s flinty and seasoned, whether dealing diplomatically with a Soviet’s hand sliding past her waist while dancing, or snooping where she shouldn’t with the threat of discovering very real and coming quickly. She’s just a few well lacquered hairs short of the inner sense of resolve that would have made the performance great. She’s also sharing screen time with Caine, an actor whose ability to make a janitor larger than life seems as effortless as Moore’s to pull off a complex woman on the edge seem slightly labored.
There are plenty of surprises in FLAWLESS, the kind that make an audience actually gasp, but they are all driven with a relentless logic, which makes them all the more satisfying. It’s the sort of film that is as much fun to rehash afterwards as it was to experience to begin with, all the better to savor those carefully placed clues clues in retrospect, as it was to discover them in the first place.