Mud. Flawless opens on a pair of hands mucking about in brown, viscous mud and water, sifting — it turns out — for diamonds. But this sifting isn’t set in the mountains of South Africa or Brazil. Instead, this dirty work is taking place in London, 1960.
So begins Michael Radford’s caper flick, recalled for a young, pert reporter named Cassie (Kate Maravan). In 2007 or so, for a story on “women who led during the ’50s and ’60s,” she’s interviewing Laura Quinn (a very badly plastic-wrinkle-faced Demi Moore). Cassie thinks Laura was a mover and shaker in the diamond industry, specifically at a company called London Diamond. Laura gazes at he youngster across their restaurant table, smooth, if not precisely disdainful. The girl needs an education. And so Laura gives her one. As she begins to describe what it was like to live and work within this “fiercely male-dominated environment,” she pulls out a gigantic diamond (58 facets), proof of her survival, indeed, of her own private conquest. As Cassie’s eyes go suitably wide, Laura begins to narrate: “A good deal took place at London Diamond that may not be in your notes…”
Unfortunately, what she has to say is not so enticing as this set up suggests. The younger Laura, American born and Oxford-educated, does look terrific, perfectly coiffed in a circa-Jackie flip and form-fitted into her designer suits. Her heels clack on the polished floors of London Diamond, comprised of long, white-walled hallways and impressively huge steel vaults. Here the company, “sole supplier of diamonds to six continents,” keeps drawers full of unfinished stones, hard, white, and apparently very seductive, the camera lingering over them. As the men in charge puff cigars and note they’ve lost some 100 workers in the recent Sharpeville massacre, she listens carefully and waits patiently, hoping against hope that the next promotion will be hers. In an effort to help that dream along, Laura comes up with a frankly daring plan: though the Soviets are demanding sanctions against South Africa for the abuses in the mines and the police shootings, she suggests a deeply hypocritical solution that allows the company privately to keep the Russians as clients while allowing them to “publicly dissociate from racist capitalism.” The hitch is that only a precious few mucky-mucks in London Diamond can know of the plan, an elite set that does not, by definition of her rank and gender, include Laura.
The deceit goes another step, as head of the company, Mka (Joss Ackland), adopts Laura’s plan while simultaneously conniving not only to fire her, but also to ensure she never works in the industry again. Just as she learns of this devastating affront, Laura is approached by the janitor at London Diamond, Hobbs (Michael Caine). Nearing retirement, he’s got a scheme, he says, by which they might steal a thermos full of diamonds from the vault — at £2 million, an amount so small that the company won’t even notice, but will secure their fortunes for life.
Laura’s contemplation of the crime is rendered in precise, compelling scenes. As she rolls over the notion that, as Hobbs has noted, her colleagues do not appreciate her “dedication” or ingenuity, that in fact, they are punishing her for exactly these qualities and the threat she embodies, she sits quietly in her dining room alone, cigarette in hand and wine glass half-full. Now reputed to be “grossly incompetent,” after having “botched [London Diamond’s] relations with the Russians,” she’s essentially been rejected by the hierarchy for whom she has given up her chances at marriage or any other life resembling a “typical” woman’s role. Hobbs’ idea sounds like righteous payback.
The film follows Laura’s ensuing rocky relationship with Hobbs, as he may or may not be lying to her, as she thinks through each step, as she confronts the company’s brand new security system (cameras in the hallways). Manifestly smarter than any of her colleagues or so-called superiors, Laura is nonetheless mystified by Hobbs, whose persistent devotion to his dead wife and own long-lived anger at the diamonds and banking system are pieces of a puzzle the film, to its credit, doesn’t exactly solve. Most often adopting Laura’s limited view, the movie walks a fine line, admiring her brilliance but also revealing her flaws, her trust in a man who only seems simple and her resentment shaping occasionally imprudent decisions.
For all Flawless‘ interest in the workings of Laura’s mind, the caper part of the plot is awfully regular: long movie minutes are spent watching her steal a code from with Mka’s inner sanctum and then watching Hobbs actually steal the stones, an event broken down into multiple security camera views, shots of the security guard missing the security camera view, and still more shots of Hobbs sweating and hustling throughout a long night of work.
If the heist mechanics are tedious, Laura’s trajectory is a greater disappointment. It’s not long before her lack of information and insight becomes frustrating, not because it troubles the plot, but because it sets her along a path to moral enlightenment orchestrated by the too-wise Hobbs. Her standard-issue girl plot is only extended when she meets the detective on the case of the missing diamonds, the dashing and judicious Finch (Lambert Wilson). Amid all the cat-and-mousing and Laura’s ethical evolution, the faraway mine workers rather fall by the wayside.