Rogue Trader (1999)

D: James Dearden
S: Ewan McGregor, Anna Friel

Bland history of the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995 focusing on stockbroker Nick Leeson (Ewan McGregor), the man responsible. Writer/director James Dearden disappointingly fails to expand upon the facts as related in Leeson's biography. A potentially dynamite combination of reckless youth and late twentieth century capitalism becomes a rather limp and superficial account of the events with a largely extraneous love story tagged on to give the appearance of roundedness. The film clumsily and mechanically alternates between a jargonistic depiction of Leeson's activities at the Singapore Stock Exchange and pointless, repetitive, and voyeuristic exchanges between McGregor and Anna Friel as Leeson and wife.

McGregor has an established pedigree playing trendy nonconformists (largely thanks to Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave and Trainspotting), and it seems as if Dearden hopes that a couple of scenes of his character getting drunk in pubs and discos will toss the film a lifeline of credibility with Generation X audiences. This can't work, especially because Leeson, while undoubtedly foolish, is far from a rebel. On the contrary, he is the very soul of western capitalism, a point the film surprisingly fails to make with any force. He worked as part of the system and played the game with devotion to the pleasures of being master of the universe so brilliantly evoked by Tom Wolfe (if not by Brian De Palma) in Bonfire of the Vanities and effectively visualised by Oliver Stone in Wall Street. Though there are some suggestions that his recklessness is the result of being a younger generation of 'hungrier' capitalist (portrayed in contrast to the stiff-necked upper management of Barings), there is little here to suggest that the evils in this situation are not those of poor judgment, but of a culture of electronic money and nonexistent commodities indicative of the decline of western civilisation. This may be because of the fact that it is based upon a book co-written by the man himself, who seems to have little of this sense of perspective. Its focus is explicitly internal, and as a portrait of a young man who gets himself into a tight spot, it is serviceable enough largely thanks to McGregor's performance. This is not reason enough to watch it, but it might make an interesting evening's viewing on TV if you have a pre-existing interest in the events themselves.

The love story is a waste of time though. Dearden (best known as the writer of Fatal Attraction) fails to invigorate the depiction of the relationship between Leeson and his wife. As the presumed moral and emotional anchor of the story, it bears a narrative and thematic weight which it cannot support. Friel is wasted (and doesn't look her best either), and while the first few scenes of their romance are solid enough, there is nowhere for her character to go after they get married. She seems to spend her time shopping, working out and having sex with her husband, and despite an attempt to up the stakes by having her become unhappy with all of it and suffer a miscarriage, her story is tedious and redundant. McGregor does his best to convince us of Leeson's sincerity, but it is a one-note interpretation of the couple's life undercut by the revelation in the closing credits that they divorced soon after the events portrayed. This defeats the entire point of these eventually unnecessary 'romantic' scenes and fatally suggests that a whole other story remains to be told.

Rogue Trader is a film which only works if you have some interest in the subject beforehand, and even then it provides little illumination. It recounts the facts as seen by the subject himself, which inevitably taints its veracity as a record of events and offers almost no real insight or analysis into the larger questions raised by them. McGregor does what he can, Friel likewise with even less to work with, and a game supporting cast of relative unknowns help to avoid the stench of cash-in, but there are few pleasures to be had here, and almost no elucidation. It is probably destined for limited release and to be consigned to the back catalogue of bargain bin 'true stories'. This does little justice to its makers, but is sadly an accurate reflection of its quality. Not worth the effort.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.