Howard Marks is one of Britain’s most famous drug smugglers. He’s by no means what we normally associate with that line of work. An Oxford graduate, he’s a charming, articulate individual who probably doesn’t even know how to hold a gun, never mind fire it.
Mr Nice a reference to the fact he stole the identity of a man called ‘Mr Nice’ (pronounced ‘Neese’, like the French town) and used that to leave the country and become a fugitive for many years. However, it is also a fairly perfect description of his character.
The film takes us from his humble beginnings in the Welsh mining village of Kenfig Hill; to his first experience of smoking cannabis at Oxford University; his decision to start smuggling the drug into Britain; and his eventual capture by the police.
What makes this story so unique and interesting is the aforementioned personality of Marks, who has none of the traits we normally associate with drug dealers, aside from a love for using them. We see the almost unbelievable tale of his involvement with MI5, as well as his involvement with Jim McCann of the provisional IRA.
McCann is expertly portrayed by David Thewlis, one of the few actors not from Northern Ireland who manages to completely nail the accent. Unfortunately his inclusion in the story also highlights the film’s biggest weakness.
It seems like Bernard Rose, the director of Mr Nice, was just as charmed by Howard Marks as everyone in the film seems to be. This means there are few times Marks’ decision to move from a user of cannabis to a dealer is questioned.
It’s important to make a distinction between the two, since I think the case for using cannabis is entirely separate from the decision to start dealing it. Plenty of cultures and societies have made contrary decisions about what drugs should and should not be legal. The film does a fairly good job of giving the reasons for its legalisation and allows the viewer to consider their own stance on the issue.
However, the film does not do the same thing with the issue of what to do if you disagree with the government’s stance of cannabis, or any drug you think should be legal. In Marks’ case he felt it was legitimate to start importing it himself, despite the fact he was funding a member of the provisional IRA by doing so. Never mind any of the other dodgy characters he has to deal with along the way.
In treating this issue in such a way, it undermines the other important arguments the movie makes about drugs and their perception by society. Now, it may be that coming from Northern Ireland makes me more sensitive to the idea that someone could so easily fund an organisation responsible for over thirty years of shooting, bombing and fear-mongering. However, I do think the issue should at least be raised.
Mr Nice is a biopic about a fascinating and unique character, and I can completely see why the people behind the movie though it would make a great story. However, in trying to create a film with a message, I feel like they’ve been too short-sighted in merely challenging our perceptions of drugs, and not looking more closely about the way the drugs trade impacts on the world beyond the recreational use of such substances.