Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Smiling villains

"O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! My tables,--meet it is I set it down, That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;" (Hamlet, Act 1 Sc. 5)

The plausible politician who reveals him- or herself in true colour only too late (pick your own example) is a cliché. Such revelations are key to large swathes of written art, and not just whodunits.

Rarer are characters who are known from the start to be villains yet are still engaging personalities. For me, the epitome is Charles Tobin (played by Dane Otto Kruger), the mastermind behind moves to keep the USA out of the anti-Nazi campaign in the second world war in Hitchcock's "Saboteur". He is not only a prominent benefactor, but also a loved and loving family man. Indeed, in an ironic reverse of a common plot device, the hero of "Saboteur" plays on Tobin's better nature, using a child as a shield for an escape.

I was reminded of Tobin by Hugh Laurie's playing of Richard Roper, in BBC-1's "The Night Manager". In this dramatisation of a John le Carré novel directed by Susanne Bier, Roper is a man you would happily spend an evening with if one did not know his business or the lengths he would go to promote it. Probably, like Tobin, he does not believe what he is doing is so bad and that international law is anti-competitive and therefore wrong.

What is worrying is the number of real-life Tobins and Ropers.

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