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Malcolm
cast: Colin Friels, John Hargreaves, and Lindy Davis

producer and director: Nadia Tess
87 minutes (15) 1986
widescreen ratio 16:9
Brit Films TV DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
Malcolm Hughes (Colin Friels) works for a tram company in Melbourne, and has a hard time dealing with other people. His boss (Charles 'Bud' Thompson) thinks he's mentally deficient; but what Malcolm lacks in social skills, he makes up for with his brilliance in working with machines. They are Malcolm's shield against the outside world: he'd rather rig up a toy train to collect his post, or use a remote-controlled car to fetch milk from the shop, than do such things himself, because of course that would involve interacting with someone else. Machines also bring him joy: Malcolm has used spare parts from the depot to build his own little tram that he likes to drive - the broad grin on his face when he does so is in sharp contrast to the way he normally goes around with his head down. But Malcolm's boss doesn't think much of his antics, and fires him before the opening credits.

Mrs T from the shop (Beverley Phillips) can no longer afford to keep giving away groceries to Malcolm, and suggests he advertise for a boarder. The ad is answered by Frank (John Hargreaves), who could hardly be more different from the mild-mannered Malcolm; but Frank moves in, and is joined by his girlfriend Judith (Lindy Davis) soon after. It transpires that Frank is a criminal, newly released from prison; Malcolm takes it upon himself to come up with contraptions to help Frank rob banks - such as a getaway car that splits in half lengthways. Concerned that Frank and Malcolm are going to get caught if they're not careful, Judith reluctantly decides that the only way forward is to help the two men with one last, carefully planned, bank job - and naturally, with Malcolm on board, there's a mechanical twist to it.

What makes Malcolm such a charming movie? The title character's outlandish contraptions, for one thing: just when you think you've seen it all, Malcolm invents something else that couldn't possibly work... yet, in his world, it does. Then there's the humour, which is always warm-hearted: though it often emerges from Malcolm's lack of social graces, there is never any sense of laughing at him. One early example of the film's kind of humour comes when Frank first arrives at Malcolm's door asking about the room. Mrs T has given Malcolm a list of things to find out about prospective tenants, which he duly recites, without pause ("1. Do you have any references...?"). Later, when Judith says that she's also like to move in, Malcolm's first instinct is to reach for his clipboard and begins reading out the questions once again.

Colin Friels' performance as Malcolm is excellent: not just the stumbling, awkward voice, but also the mannerisms, the physicality... all add up to a thoroughly convincing portrayal. But John Hargreaves also does well as Malcolm's opposite, and so does Lindy Davis as the woman trying to do the best for both of them. So: well-acted, good-humoured, a delight from beginning to end... Malcolm is warmly recommended.

But there is one question, touched on in the bonus interviews, which needs addressing: by allowing its protagonist to commit criminal acts without penalty, does the film glorify criminality? It does when I put it like that, and the trouble for us is that we're on the side of the whole trio of characters: one wishes Malcolm no ill will; Judith is sympathetic because she clearly cares about Malcolm; we even warm to Frank in the end, not so much because of the story Judith tells about his troubled past, but because we see the person he is underneath - the person he could be all the time, given the chance. Yet these three are undoubtedly doing something wrong.

In the end, I think it is more accurate to say that Malcolm does not glorify criminality so much as present a situation in which crime becomes the only option. The movie doesn't ask us to support criminal behaviour; it asks us - challenges us, perhaps - to understand why these individuals, in this situation, behave the way they do. All while making us laugh.

DVD extras: interesting interviews with Colin Friels, writer-producer David Parker, and producer-director Nadia Tass; theatrical trailer (not to be watched before the movie, as it does reveal all the best bits!); behind-the-scenes footage; image gallery.
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