Guy Ritchie has just had a massive hit with the live-action Disney version of Aladdin, but now he’s going right back to his roots with a cracking new movie about gangsters, geezers and good old England. ‘The older I get, the more I love England and the quirks and nuances of English culture,’ says the 51-year-old movie director, who made his name with the London comic thrillers Snatch and Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels.
The Gentlemen is an even more super-stylish crime caper, in which Hugh Grant is brilliant against type as a sleazy private investigator hired by a tabloid editor, while Matthew McConaughey plays a brutal American crime boss who wants to retire and live like an English lord of the manor. He wears tweed suits, hangs out with proper aristocrats and holds shooting parties on his country estate, much like the real Guy Ritchie actually does. So to what extent are we seeing his life on screen here? ‘To quite a major degree,’ says Ritchie, wearing a country gentleman’s check shirt to match his salt-and-pepper beard. ‘Well, they do say you should write what you know about.’
Guy Ritchie has just had a massive hit with the live-action Disney version of Aladdin, but now he’s going right back to his roots with a cracking new movie about gangsters, geezers and good old England
Guy Ritchie with his wife, Jacqui. ‘The older I get, the more I love England and the quirks and nuances of English culture,’ says the 51-year-old movie director
Drug lord Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) with wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) in The Gentlemen
His art imitates his life in other ways with The Gentlemen too, because Mickey the gangster in the movie owns a lovely-looking pub called The Lore of the Land, with its own brewery, and today we’re meeting in the back room of a pub of the same name in Fitzrovia, which really does belong to Ritchie. He’s based in this country but is also huge in Hollywood after a series of big hits, including a stylish remake of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and two Sherlock Holmes movies with Robert Downey Jr that blend Victorian London with American attitude. ‘I like England to be big, so it needs some form of tethering to a bigger and more contemporary culture. That whole Anglo-American fusion, to me, is perfect.’
His accent has been described as Mockney in the past, because his early movies have a lot of Cockney geezers in them, but actually it’s the voice of someone used to mixing with people of all classes – including some very successful American friends who have lately come to live here, a subject Ritchie addresses in his new film.
‘There is a long tradition of American money coupled with English class and the aspiration that comes with that, in a Ralph Lauren sort of way,’ he says, talking about those who have bought stately piles in this country.
‘It’s an odd thing, because I happen to know quite a lot of Americans who aspire to an English way of life. It’s hard to beat as a lifestyle. It’s a tradition that resonates with those who have nicked a few quid.’
Guy Ritchie with Brad Pitt during the making of Snatch in 2000. The Gentlemen is a return to his roots, but also a return to his old form
Ritchie has earned his money in a totally legitimate way of course, telling compelling stories on screen, but there’s a big twist to Mickey’s apparently legal life in The Gentlemen. He’s propping up the lifestyles of the posh people he befriends by paying them for permission to grow marijuana in vast bunkers under their land. What is Ritchie’s attitude to the drug? ‘I’m interested in the subject of what we should have laws about and I lean on the side of being conservative on this particular subject, but I’m not exactly sure what that means,’ he says. ‘There’s a part of me that is liberal about this and a part of me that isn’t. It depends on exactly who the individual is. What I am against, unambiguously, is anything that’s hardcore – traditionally, what was Class A – because you could be biting off more than you can chew, and sometimes people have bitten off more than they can chew with weed…’
The movie makes a strong case for the legalisation of cannabis, but Ritchie himself is not so sure. ‘There is a powerful argument for that and there is an argument against it. I don’t think it’s black and white. When people have a positive experience in this world they become major advocates for legalisation. I know lots of examples where that’s gone wrong and smoking weed has encouraged schizophrenia.’
Ritchie with Matthew McConaughey in a ‘cannabis factory’ on the set of The Gentlemen. The movie makes a strong case for the legalisation of cannabis, but Ritchie himself is not so sure
I tell him my 18-year-olds have come into contact with the drug, as most young people do. With older kids today, should we worry as much about the weed as everything else?
‘I don’t like powder of any description. I don’t like pills of any description, and they are rife. If kids are a little bit naughty, but not too naughty, is that where the balance lies? Is that the remedy to the poison? Is that where we find a way to muddle through?’
It sounds like he’s still trying to work that out. ‘Parents go through it with their kids as they go through school. It’s everywhere. Is the answer to smoke a bit of weed and muddle your way through, then do you burn out? Do you lose all interest by the time you’re 22 or 23? Or do you keep smoking weed for the rest of your life? Is it a gateway drug, or is it the opposite?’
So how should parents like him talk to their children about this? ‘The answer is that parents need to be familiar with the subject. They need to be more fluent than the kids are. That way the kids aren’t frightened to have the conversation with them – or embarrassed about the ignorance of their parents on this particular subject.’ The important thing is to keep talking, he says.
The director’s most recent success – and his biggest box-office hit to date – was that live-action Aladdin starring Will Smith as the genie, which he says was very much made with his second wife the model Jacqui Ainsley, in mind, as well as their three children: Rafael, eight, Rivka, seven, and Levi, five. ‘There was nothing cynical about it. It was overtly uncynical. I have five kids and I like entertaining them.’ The Gentlemen is very different to Aladdin: graphically violent at times, but also very funny and piled up with layer after layer of irony. The violence feels real but we know it’s not, for example. The action comes thick and fast, but so do the laughs. The American who aspires to quit crime has to get his hands dirty first. He wants to fit in with the aristocrats but starts the movie by ordering a pint and a pickled egg, a proper old East End working-class treat. ‘The pickled egg is still quite new to people,’ says Ritchie, laughing. ‘It was such an omnipresent bit of kit on every bar that I ever went to when I was a kid.’
Matthew McConaughey plays a brutal American crime boss who wants to retire and live like an English lord of the manor
Colin Farrell and Charlie Hunnam in a scene from The Gentlemen. ‘As I’m getting older I enjoy working more than I ever did,’ says Ritchie
Eddie Marsan plays a powerful tabloid editor in the new movie, but Ritchie says he stopped reading his own press years ago
‘There is a long tradition of American money coupled with English class and the aspiration that comes with that, in a Ralph Lauren sort of way,’ Ritchie says
Ritchie himself has no nostalgia for the past. ‘When we were growing up in the mid-Seventies, England was not a pleasant place,’ he says. ‘There was nothing that was good, nothing aspirational about it. The food was terrible, there was no sense of the aesthetic. This was a confused and lost country. London was evaporating, people were leaving and nobody was coming in. It had lost any sense of pride, and it’s hard for people to remember that. If you knew what came before, you would be all in favour of what some people call gentrification.’
Eddie Marsan plays a powerful tabloid editor in the new movie, but Ritchie says he stopped reading his own press years ago. ‘I haven’t read an article about me for 15 years. I would rather stay out of the affray. I love making films. If I could just go from one film to another without having to deal with the results of that, I would be on a more comfortable journey.’
The sleazy investigator who narrates The Gentlemen and works for a tabloid is played by Hugh Grant, one of the champions of the anti-press pressure group Hacked Off. How did Ritchie get him to do that?
‘I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I am sure Hugh recognises the irresistible irony of playing the part of one of the very people with whom he has had a complicated relationship with in the past.’
Was Grant easy to persuade?
‘No! Hugh needs some reassurance that he’s as good an actor as I think he is. I thought that having him playing this role would be fun, if you know who he is.’
Grant is indeed magnificent as a character whose lack of principles makes the flesh crawl. As for the central irony of the film, Ritchie says it is something he has learnt as he has got older. ‘Your strength is your weakness and your weakness is your strength. Once you’re aware of that, life has a bit more meaning.’ He wanted to make a movie about different worlds colliding as they do in his own life. So is that idea based on anything he has seen in the real world?
‘Yes! It’s quite funny where we live in the country. There was a team of lads growing weed in an ex-military nuclear bunker in Chilmark. So it does go on in the English countryside. Everything about that tickles me.’
Why release violent movies into a world that already seems so terrifying? ‘I don’t think it is more so now than it was in the Seventies or Eighties. I think it was much worse then.’ And any worries were eclipsed by the laughter at test screenings, he says. ‘Because the movie is fun. Context is everything. The narrative is told within an enormous amount of levity.’
The sleazy investigator who narrates The Gentlemen and works for a tabloid is played by Hugh Grant, one of the champions of the anti-press pressure group Hacked Off
Ritchie comes across as quietly confident, and rightly so. The Gentlemen is a return to his roots, but also a return to his old form. ‘As I’m getting older I enjoy working more than I ever did. I’m bruised and scarred enough to know that you survive the failures. After all, it’s just relative and not absolute.’ He’s got things wrong in his movies at times, but got more things very right – and in his fifth decade, Ritchie knows his worth.
‘There’s a degree of getting a kicking that inspires you to get up and go, and there’s a degree of a kicking that doesn’t. I’m of an age when I’m thinking: “Well, I care less about the kicking and more about the manifesting!’’’
And with that, in the back room of his own pub, Guy Ritchie beckons to one of his geezers and gets back to work.
‘The Gentlemen’ is in cinemas on Wednesday