By Elias Savada.
Yes, there’s a theatrical cadence in the clever dialogue, but it’s such a highly original, suspenseful piece that it works magic as the characters move about their set.”
Leonard Burling is a quiet, sad-eyed, precise, and observant man – an old-school, Savile Row cutter by trade, with exquisite tailoring instincts. When his high-end training and soft voice finds this London ex-pat cast adrift in mid-1950s Chicago, a web of intrigue surrounds his simple shop that caters to some of the area’s more disreputable gentlemen. Too ill-mannered to call him by his real name, they beckon him merely as “English.” Naturally, actor Mark Rylance fits him like a glove.
I last talked about him in my 2016 review of The BFG, featuring his motion-capture performance under the guidance of Steven Spielberg — who had directed Rylance to a well-deserved Oscar for his Cold War spy character in Bridge of Spies a year earlier. It’s always exciting to watch the actor deliver high caliber performances, whether it’s a 24-foot-tall giant or an over-the-top Elon Musk-style billionaire in Netflix’s recent Don’t Look Up. In case you didn’t know, Rylance is a terrific stage actor (3 Tonys, 2 Oliviers) and BAFTA nominee (for The Government Inspector). He’s also a playwright and was the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
Yet, it’s his sly, seductive demeanor in this new film that rises like cream to the top. Thanks to the devilish script by Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) and Johnathan McClain (an actor-turned-writer who has a cameo as an FBI agent), and Moore’s finely tuned direction, in his feature film debut, this treat becomes a technically stunning chamber piece, especially considering it was filmed mostly in sequential order on location at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, London. Only briefly does this puzzler escape the confines of Leonard’s two-room establishment.
L. Burling, Bespoke. Open Mon-Fri 9-5. Appointment Recommended. That’s his shop, where men, mostly unknown to the proprietor, scurry in and out, depositing envelopes in a black box at the back in the workroom. Only a few other folks who brave the Windy City’s horrid winter conditions stumble in for a proper fitting.
The minimalist, earth-toned set is full of brown tones (meticulously dressed by Gemma Jackson) and the well-shadowed cinematography by Dick Pope keeps the camera focuses on medium- to close-shots, washed with soft, warm attention. The theatricality of this film elevates this work to a subtle and ultimately stunning thriller, set over a 48-hour span. Toss in a comforting and beguiling score by Alexandre Desplat.
Rylance gives an actor’s masterclass in the subtleties of his art. It’s his whole-body experience.”
It’s not a large cast, either. The shop’s red-headed receptionist, Mable (Zoey Deutch), is a demure ingenue, anxious to escape the drabness and travel the world, who becomes embroiled in the potboiler action that livens up the second half of the film. The Boyle crime family uses the shop as it’s drop, although its Irish boss, Roy (Simon Russell Beale), doesn’t appear until the last third of the film. The operation is mostly under the supervision of his boorish son, Richie (Dylan O’Brien), and his too-aspiring lieutenant, Francis (Johnny Flynn). The internecine rivalry between the two men plays out as the plot revolves around, mostly through conversation, the rival La Fontaine Gang and a rumored FBI mole. There’s also talk and allusion to the film’s double-entendre title, that being a larger crime organization started years earlier by Al Capone.
It’s enchanting to hear Rylance talk about his character’s craftsmanship (and how he can convince an ignorant customer that wrong is right), holding his trademark cutting shears close lest he lose his moral strength. When ordered to sew up one of the henchmen after he arrives with a bullet wound, the dialogue takes on a mesmerizing tone after Leonard confesses to his patient in a calculated moment. The tension drips for a few agonizing seconds before director Moore offers a most interesting release.
Yes, there’s a theatrical cadence in the clever dialogue, but it’s such a highly original, suspenseful piece that it works magic as the characters move about their set. Rylance gives an actor’s masterclass in the subtleties of his art. It’s his whole-body experience. Mostly the face, but watch how he holds his body, his arms. How he holds things in and slowly lets them out. This is poker done right.
The Outfit is a delightful bluff.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).