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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THE RIDDLE -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review originally appeared online at on March 15, 2007. In April of that year THE RIDDLE became the first movie to premiere as a free DVD insert in the U.K. newspaper The Daily Mail.)

"A box without hinges, key, or lid...yet inside, a golden treasure's hid."

Are you one of those people who knew right away that the answer to this was "an egg" because you're good at solving riddles? Mike Sullivan isn't. It takes him almost a whole movie to sort out the answer to THE RIDDLE (2007), a low-key, deliberately-paced mystery thriller with a literary bent, set along the muddy banks of London's Thames River. But that's a good thing, because it's a lot more fun watching him get to the bottom of things the hard way.

Mike (Vinnie Jones) is a tabloid journalist who wants to graduate from covering dog races to crime reporting. His aggressively nosey foray into the suspicious death of a construction worker puts him at odds with a shady police detective named Willis (P.H. Moriarty), who seems to have other interests in crime besides solving it.

Mike's boss, Roberta (Vanessa Redgrave), also has reasons for wanting him to stay off the case and gives him the sack when he refuses. But he does have an ally--smart, perky Kate (Julie Cox, of the "Dune" TV miniseries), a police press officer who takes a liking to Mike and wants to help him sort out the truth.

Meanwhile, a vivacious older woman named Sadie (Vera Day), who runs the pub where Mike hangs out and has a penchant for riddles, stumbles upon a remarkable find in her cellar--an unpublished manuscript by Charles Dickens himself. But before she can parlay this discovery into untold riches, she's found dead on the riverbank.

Determining to find out who killed his friend and why, Mike soon begins to suspect a link between her murder and the death of the construction worker, along with the recent drowning of a young drug-addicted woman in the Thames. His investigation will eventually uncover questionable activities involving a sleazy construction company CEO named Roberts (Jason Flemyng) and a member of Parliament, Forsyth (Michael Fenton Stevens), who, it turns out, was a personal friend of Sadie.

All of this would make for a fairly interesting story on its own, but that's just the half of it. When Mike gets his hands on the Dickens manuscript (entitled "The Riddle") and begins reading it, the story seems to have odd parallels to his current investigation. Dickens (Derek Jacobi) himself narrates it for us, telling the tale of a young writer named Cedric Skenshal and his wife, who is slowly going mad. Her sister Alice moves in to help care for her, after which the tale soon darkens to include mysterious death, blackmail, and murder.

How this story is eventually resolved not only relates in a strange way to Mike's current concerns, but also seems to mean more to Dickens than a mere work of fiction--especially when the esteemed author starts whispering clues and warnings to Mike in his dreams. "I've got enough trouble with real crime, let alone made-up ones by Dickens," he complains to Kate at one point.

THE RIDDLE is writer-producer Brendan Foley's follow-up to 2005's kickass crime drama JOHNNY WAS--the script was a finalist in the 2001 Big Break international screenwriting contest--and his first film as director. He handles the job quite assuredly for a first-timer and shows some flashes of style, especially in the sequence where Mike gets drugged and seduced by a mysterious woman named Margot (Clemmie Myers). She waits for him to pass out in bed and then stands there in her bra and panties casually snapping pictures of his investigative notes to a driving techno beat. It may not sound like much in print, but visually it's pretty cool.

The darkly-lit Dickens scenes are seemingly intrusive at first, but become more interesting as the importance of the century-old tale grows in relation to the rest of the story. As in JOHNNY WAS, Foley shows a knack for exploring the seedier side of London, and makes the most of a relatively modest five-million-dollar budget to bring his smartly-written screenplay to life.

The cast is exceptional, especially Vinnie Jones (JOHNNY WAS, X-MEN:THE LAST STAND, LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS), who has recently become one of my favorite actors. He's convincing as anything from a ruthless killer to the likable sort he plays here, and, in the tradition of the classic movie tough guys, is always interesting to watch. Julie Cox gives a fun performance as Kate, whose quirky romance with Mike is one of the most appealing aspects of the film--they make a delightful non-glamorous movie couple as they gradually warm up to each other.

Still lovely at 67, Vera Day (LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS, WOMANEATER, ENEMY FROM SPACE) shines in her brief scenes as the ill-fated Sadie. Ruthless CEO Roberts is played with plenty of slime by Jason Flemyng, familiar as the sniveling Netley of FROM HELL and Dr. Jekyll in THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.

Also notable are Mark Asante as Mike's construction worker friend Dwayne, P.H. Moriarty as the loathesome detective Willis, Shelly Goldstein as the mad Mrs. Skenshal, British comedian Mel Smith ("Not The Nine O'Clock News", THE PRINCESS BRIDE) as Dickens expert Professor Cranshaw, and, of course, the formidable Vanessa Redgrave in the small role of Mike's devious boss, Roberta.

Best of all, perhaps, is Derek Jacobi ("I, Claudius", UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION, GLADIATOR) as a nameless old tramp who haunts the muddy shoreline of the Thames, scrounging for various discarded items and always on the lookout for the occasional "manna from heaven" that comes his way.

Long-haired and scruffy, the tramp sees and knows more than one might think, and his help, in exchange for coffee and sandwiches ("Beef!" is his favorite) proves invaluable to Mike and Kate. The tramp is a great character--funny, wise, prone to occasional outbursts of theatricality, and a bit mystical--and Jacobi, who also plays Dickens, gives a wonderful performance.

What is the secret behind THE RIDDLE? (Part of the answer lies in this review.) All is revealed in the exciting final scene, which includes murder, a confession or two, and a twist that is pretty surprising unless you're one of those people who are good at solving riddles and have already figured it out. Which Mike Sullivan isn't, thank goodness, or it would've been a really short film.

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