J.J. Connolly’s debut novel Layer Cake was published in 2000, and brought to the screen by Matthew Vaughn in 2004. It was the first film Matthew Vaughn directed, after being a producer for Guy Richie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch (and Swept Away – Shhhhh!). The film was a breakthrough starring role for Daniel Craig, proving he could carry a movie and helping pave the way for him to take over as James Bond. It’s a tense, dark and often very funny movie, full of plot twists and with an ending that will catch you by surprise. It’s an underrated movie, and the book is even better.
On the surface Layer Cake looks quite similar to Lock Stock, both blackly funny films set in a London underworld filled with larger than life characters, violence and double-crosses. Looking more closely though, Layer Cake is a very different film indeed. To start with it looks different, from the very beginning. The pharmacy filled by CGI with designer brand drugs, the bright colours, the visually luscious tracking shot under the opening credits, immediately make a clear distinction. Layer Cake is a good looking film, more orthodox looking than Lock Stock perhaps, but certainly not a re-hashing of the same stuff.
Layer Cake also has more of a point to make. The voice over at the start warns us “Always remember, some day all this will be legal,” and the designer brand drugs make the same point. Drug dealers they may be, but they’re just supplying a demand in society. This is the prohibition era for drugs, if you like. The film isn’t pro drugs. It shows the low side as well as the high, and as events escalate you get the impression cocaine dealing might well be more trouble than it’s worth. Our nice young drug dealer starts out well enough, but as the film progresses finds himself caught up in all sorts of mischief.
The nice young drug dealer is Layer Cake’s main character. Daniel Craig’s unnamed protagonist is a type of drug dealer unlikely ever to be found in a Guy Richie movie. Smart, quiet, careful, low key and efficient, his ambition is earning enough to get out of the drugs game, and he’s almost there. He dislikes the “gangster” types, seeing himself as “a businessman whose commodity happens to be cocaine.”
Turning legitimate is his eventual goal. His cohorts and bosses, Morty, Clarkie, Gene and Jimmy are all good, but it’s Eddie Temple, played by Michael Gambon, who steals the show. Gambon has terrific fun as the boy from the streets made good, always in control and stealing all the best lines. Across the board the acting is excellent, and right from the off the characters in Layer Cake seem real.
One of the advantages the novel has over the film is the luxury of much greater characterisation for the minor roles. The story of Morty’s careful selection of the narrator as his partner, and Clarkie’s status as the youngest son of an old school crime family2 are both fantastic parts of the novel. The Liverpool branch of drug dealers have their role greatly cut for the film, as do Cody and Tiptoes. It isn’t just the plot or character elements that are missed, it’s the way they’re told. J.J. Connolly’s debut is a cracking read, his descriptions and dialogue thick with great lines3. A lot of good stuff is brought over into the film, but inevitably not everything makes the cut.
Interestingly, while Matthew Vaughn and Daniel Craig have both gone on to multiple projects with major success, J.J. Connolly has taken over ten years to release a follow-up novel (2012′s Viva La Madness, a sequel to Layer Cake). He has done other things in that time, notably working on the Stardust script for Vaughn, but given the electric and successful nature of his debut, it’s odd to see such a long time between drinks.
It’s a pity as well, because Layer Cake is a fantastic book. The London underworld talk is enthralling, the characters are rich and well drawn, the plot twists and turns in unexpected directions, and there are some truly hilarious moments. The novel is told in the first person and is very dialogue heavy, which is a strength. Some of Connolly’s scenes are just conversations between two characters, subtly advancing the plot without anybody noticing.
The film’s attitude towards drugs and their legalisation is present in the book, but it’s very much in the background. It comes up, but Connolly is smart enough to let his characters carry the novel, without getting too heavy handed about things. Connolly’s real trick is drawing the reader into the book. He makes the reader part of the con. A line carried over to the film is “Everyone wants to walk through a door marked ‘Private’”, and in the book that’s the con. Connolly’s narrator is confiding in the readers, letting us in because we’re not like all the other mugs. We’re walking through the marked door. It’s a subtle trick of flattery which works a treat, pulling us in immediately and putting us firmly in the corner of the narrator and his pals.
Which is no mean feat. These guys are drug dealers, unsavoury types not above a bit of violence where necessary. But right from the opening paragraph, we’re on the narrators side. It’s important to note Connolly has made them cocaine dealers, with a sideline in ecstasy. The narrator briefly makes a point of telling us he’s never sold heroin. Not for any moral reason, he’s quick to tell us, just because it’s too much trouble. Even so, it’s an important distinction. We can get on the side of some nice cocaine dealers. Heroin would have been a whole other story.
Class and education play an important role in both versions of Layer Cake4. Every relationship between characters is influenced by their social differences. Morty is black, Gene is Irish, Jimmy is coarse and boorish, and the narrator is a social climber, on his way up and out. One of the subtler changes in the film is a slight socio-economic upgrade for the protagonist.
In the novel when Eddie Ryder mentions a remora he mistakes it for the name of a country. In the movie he surprises Eddie by knowing what a remora is. He isn’t a different character, he’s just further along in the film than he is in the novel. The meeting with Eddie is a chance for the narrator to see how far he has to go, Eddie being close to his end goal. A hustler who came up from the street and made it, using the same smarts to run a (mostly) legitimate business.
The movie as a whole does can leave you with the impression of missing something, as if you’re not quite in on the joke, or haven’t been given the full story. Details are not filled in, and you don’t have the rich background on the characters that the novel gives. Lines in the movie (“In those days being black was worse than being Irish.”) stand in for whole chapters of character-building and backstory.
This is inevitable, adapting a three hundred page book into ninety minutes of screen time is does not leave a lot of room for minor characters and sub-plots to be fleshed out. The book contains a lot of great moments that the film doesn’t have time to fit in, but that’s the nature of a film. It’s made to hold you for ninety minutes, a book can be read over a week.
Layer Cake is interesting as a huge jumping off point for Connolly, Vaughn and Craig, debut novel, debut film and breakthrough role respectively. It will be interesting to see if they come together again now the sequel has been published. Connolly believes his follow up is better than Layer Cake, and he certainly hasn’t forgotten how to write memorable dialogue. Given Vaughn’s development as a director and Craig’s elevated status as resident Bond, a sequel would be very interesting indeed. Unlikely, perhaps, but it would certainly make for compelling viewing. All we can do is wait and see.
1. Not only was it a breakthrough for Craig, a not-quite-famous-yet Tom Hardy kicks about with a tiny speaking part as Clarkie, Colm Meany does his best work since crashing a plane under the influence of a silly accent in Die Hard 2, and of course Morty went on to be Kingsley Shacklebolt.
2. Of all the changes in the film, Clarkie’s backstory was the one I missed most. (‘You can look at Clarkie and see breeding counts.They’ve been villains in his family for generations, second nature to check whether we’re being tailed, learnt in the cradle, first words outta their mouths, “No Comment”.’)
3. “And listen, son. All f*kin’ words are made-up words.”
4. Michael Gambon was instructed to let his posh accent drop occasionally, showing his character’s working-class roots, deliberately obscured through elocution lessons. He was not pleased, apparently doubting viewer’s ability to make the distinction between a character with a dodgy accent and an actor doing a poor job. I didn’t notice the accent dropping at all until I heard about that and watched the film again.
What do you make of Layer Cake? Film or book? Let us know in the comments section below.
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