Dir: Ridley Scott

With: Christopher Plummer, Michelle Williams, Mark Wahlberg

Runtime: 133 minutes

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AS the events in Ridley Scott’s drama show, all the money in the world could not buy the Getty family good fortune. The same ill luck looked like it had transferred to the film itself when its lead, Kevin Spacey, playing J Paul Getty, was accused of sexual harassment and airbrushed out of the picture.

What could have been a disaster turns out to be a boon in that Spacey’s replacement, Christopher Plummer, is so outstanding one wonders why he was not chosen for the role in the first place. While it is too much to say he saves the picture – the true story of the Getty grandson’s kidnapping is strong enough to stand on its own – he brings a convincing sense of sorrow to proceedings where Spacey would have deployed swagger.

Scott opens the picture with a strut of his own, a long, black-and-white tracking shot showing 16-year-old Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation) walking through Rome in 1973. His long hair flowing, a Jaggeresque white jacket on his skinny rock star frame, the kid is living la dolce vita. Until a van skids to a halt and he is bundled into it. The grisly saga has begun.

Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) gets a call from the kidnappers. At first she thinks it is a joke. Realising that this time it is for real, Gail phones the head of the family, only to be told he is unavailable. The markets have opened and the world’s richest man is trying to make a buck.

When he does make a statement it is to say that he will not be paying a cent of the $17 million ransom on the grounds that it will only encourage more kidnappings. Though there is logic to his stance, he comes across as cold, unfeeling, almost inhuman.

The screenplay wisely digs deeper by taking a look at the earlier relationship between grandson and grandfather. The child had been part of a “normal” family, until dad, tired of struggling, asked Getty Snr for a job. Their first meeting with the old man should have rung alarm bells. Though living in a luxury hotel suite, the place is strewn with wet socks and vests because Getty Snr won’t pay to have his laundry done.

Scott goes back and forth between the kidnapping, the past and Gail’s struggle to get her father-in-law to help. Time and again the point is driven home that Getty Snr is a deal maker first and a grandpa second. But he does care for the boy, as we see when he sends his fixer, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), to Rome to help Gail negotiate. There is always a price to be paid for Getty Snr’s help, however.

The kidnapping was a complex affair and Scott sometimes allows his film to become bogged down. Some of the dialogue, particularly between Williams and her contact among the kidnappers (Frenchman Romain Duris playing an Italian) sounds a touch too polished for what must have been fraught times. On the plus side, Scott’s attention to detail leaves the viewer with a powerful sense of the Italy of the times as a poisonous, corrupt, chaotic place. It also confirms that having too much money does strange things to people.

When it comes to the scene those familiar with the case have been dreading, Scott does not flinch from showing the horror. Otherwise, he uses his skill as a filmmaker to find beauty among the ugliness, as when his camera takes in a chorus lines of stylish women engaged in the grubby business of counting ransom.

Wahlberg does not stray an inch from his comfort zone as the fast-talking, cynical Chase. Williams, often seeming to be the only sane character in the room, is a commanding presence because of her low-key performance.

All kudos to Plummer, though, who takes a character that might have been crashingly one-dimensional and makes him something more fascinating, even if we never quite pin down why he turned out as he did.

As for the replacement of Spacey by Plummer, the capitalist in Getty would have been amused by the mix of good business sense and naked ruthlessness. Without Scott’s decisive action, the picture would not be up for three Golden Globes tomorrow (best supporting actor, Plummer; best actress, Williams; and best director, Scott). All the money in the world might count for nothing at times, but guile and talent will always hold their value.