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The most wanted man in England

April 23, 2009


Sometimes you just need to sit down with a good action romp of a film, eighteenth century style. Plunkett and Macleane hits the spot every time. (It hits the spot so often, in fact, that Pimpernel’s copy of the DVD cracked under the strain and he had to buy a new one…)

London, 1748: Will Plunkett (played by Robert Carlyle) is a highwayman down on his luck, whose accomplice has just been killed by the sinister Thieftaker General. A dramatic chance encounter with vagrant and debtor’s jail resident “Captain” James MacCleane (Jonny Lee Miller) leads to an unlikely proposition. MacCleane will pass himself off as a gentleman, hobnob with the rich, and discover who is worth stealing from. Then he and Plunkett will relieve these rich victims of their  valuables at pistol point. 

Jonny Lee Miller as James Macleane


The film is based very loosely on the lives of two real Highwaymen called Plunket and Maclaine (spellings vary in different sources). James Maclaine became known as the Gentleman Highwayman due to his extreme civility and politeness towards his victims. He was also a bit of a hit with the ladies. The writer Horace Walpole was robbed by the duo and recounts the incident in one of his letters:


One night in the beginning of November, 1749, as I was returning from Holland House by moonlight, about ten at night, I was attacked by two highwaymen in Hyde Park, and the pistol of one of them going off accidentally, razed the skin under my eye, left some marks of shot on my face, and stunned me. The ball went through the top of the chariot, and if I had sat an inch nearer to the left side, must have gone through my head.

From Short Notes of My Life in The Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Mrs Paget Toynbee

Accounts of the robbery appeared in many London papers at the time, prompting Maclaine to write a very courteous letter to Walpole apologizing for the accidental injury and offering to return his watch and other stolen items if he would meet them:

seeing an advertisement in the papers of to Day giveing an account of your being Rob’d by two Highway men on wedensday night last in Hyde Parke and during the time a Pistol being fired whether Intended or Accidentally was Doubtfull Oblidges Us to take this Method of assureing you that it was the latter and by no means Design’d Either to hurt or frighten you for tho’ we are Reduced by the misfortunes of the world and obliged to have Recourse to this method of getting money Yet we have Humanity Enough not to take any bodys life where there is Not a Nessecety for it…
From Supplement to the Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Paget Toynbee


James Macleane, From Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters, of Remarkable Persons, from the Revolution in 1688 to the End of the Reign of George II.: by James Caulfield


Plunkett and Macleane was director Jake Scott (son of Ridley Scott’s) first film, and it got a lukewarm reception from critics. I’m still not sure why, except that perhaps this isn’t a film for historical purists, and it has its tongue firmly in its cheek. Modern and period are mixed to good effect in a manner that brings to mind Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. There is a ball scene about as far from Jane Austen as you’re likely to get with a Dance soundtrack, and Alan Cumming plays the flamboyant Earl of Rochester in an outfit which is a mixture of Boy George meets Philip Treacy on acid. 

The film came out in 1999, and visually it still hasn’t dated. This is partly thanks to the costume design, which is 18th Century with a sharp modern edge. There are some fabulous scenes, including the “makeover” scene. “To pass as a gentleman” complains Macleane, “I would need a good address, exquisite clothes, servants and a big pile of loot.” Plunkett empties a bag of gold coins on the table- his life’s savings? “Let’s shop.” And shop they do, eighteenth century style, complete with glasses of claret at fittings, tailors running hissing irons over lengths of silk, and purchases in wrapped and ribboned boxes carried on horseback.

Check out the trailer:

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