E. M. Forster’s famous two-word exhortation, “Only Connect” appears onscreen to top and tail writer/director Michael Winterbottom’s latest work, ‘Greed’. You might want to connect the life story of Winterbottom’s egregiously avaricious central character, Sir Richard McCreadie, with that of a real-life billionaire knight of the high street fashion trade. I couldn’t possibly comment.
We open with an in-house annual awards ceremony. High street fashion magnate, Sir Richard “Greedy” McCreadie (Steve Coogan), is handing out oversized (in the sense of length by width) cheques as rewards to the high achievers of his company. Given that the amounts written on these cheques run into tens of thousands of pounds, you might conclude they are ‘oversized’ in financial terms, too. Size is relative though, innit? This becomes apparent when McCreadie’s business partner, who also happens to be his wife (Isla Fisher) is presented with her annual bonus cheque of £1.2bn.
As he approaches 60, ‘Greedy’ McCreadie is preparing for the mother of all birthday parties on the Greek island of Mykonos. Things are not going smoothly, “Do I have to do everything myself?” he rails. His A list guests are crying off one by one, and there are a bunch of Syrian refugees, camped on the beach, spoiling his view. The amphitheatre he’s having built is way behind schedule, and although the real-life lion is already in situ, it’s moody and skittish because all that’s going on around it.
His family, who have started to arrive, are an interesting bunch: his mother, Margaret (played as a formidable, wizened Irishwoman by Shirley Henderson) is holding court. His now ex-wife and mother of his children turns up with a new boyfriend and a £10k boob job (a bargain at half what Sir Richard laid out for his sparkling gnashers). One daughter, Lily (Sophie Cookson), is being constantly filmed as the star of a “reality” TV show – “I have to find myself, which is harder than I thought,” she tells her grandmother. Meanwhile, McCreadie’s youngest son, Finn (Asa Butterfield) is lusting after his stepmother, Naomi (Shanina Shaik) and pondering just how far to pursue his burgeoning oedipal complex.
Amongst this variously repulsive crew nestle one or two half-decent folk. Technophobe writer, Nick (David Mitchell), Sir Richard’s official biographer, and underling dogsbody Amanda (Dinita Gohil) form a kind of last bastion of humanity. More significantly in the grand scheme of things, unofficial leader of the Syrian refugees, Kareem Alkabanni (a genuine refugee, genuinely residing on Mykonos) shows that decency and remarkable resilience are not yet lost to the world.
The narrative makes periodic leaps back into Sir Richard’s history – his expulsion from private school (for gambling); his ruthless early deals (“Just shake my hand and nod.”); his soulless exploitation of developing world sweatshop workers; his unapologetic clashes with a Parliamentary Select Committee (“Envy and greed, my doctor tells me, are incurable diseases.”). In Winterbottom’s script, the devil certainly gets most of the best lines. ‘Greedy’ McCreadie is despicably fascinating.
A comeuppance awaits, we hope, and Winterbottom provides one (although it has the feeling of wish fulfilment ex machina and is one of the weaker moments in the plot). Most of the decent folk pull through, but they do not thrive, and the (all too plausible) underlying message seems to be, ‘the more things change, the more they are likely to get worse for those who most need them to get better.’
A satirical dismantling of the disgracefully legal exploitation of the poor and powerless by the unscrupulous, ‘Greed’ never forgets that satire needs to be sharp AND funny. Winterbottom is keen to stress that, ‘the film is about inequality’ rather than a specific individual, about ‘free market fundamentalism’, rather than the life of He-Whose-Name-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned.
Coogan and Mitchell take on roles that fit their talents like surgical gloves. The necessary key section, in which the workings of high finance are laid out (for Mitchell’s character and, of course, for the audience) is achieved with brevity and clarity (and will no doubt leave many gobsmacked and seething at the injustice of it all).
‘Greed’ serves up unpalatable truths in a deliciously entertaining banquet of vignettes, seasoned with laughter and doused with a tangy dressing of unremitting scorn. For all that, we should not forget that lives are ruined and, sometimes, lost in establishing and maintaining such inequalities. That, at base, is Winterbottom’s point. Only connect.★ ★ ★ ★
Greed is at Home, Manchester and UK cinemas from 21 February 2020.