Hugh Grant has spent the majority of his career playing charming, well-spoken, quintessentially British gentlemen. Or, as he likes to call them: “dishy leading men.” He’s good at it, too, having starred in some very popular romantic comedies — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually — that will stand the test of time. These past few years, however, the English actor has been embracing the dark side more often, and it’s been a joy to watch.
The latest villainous turn from Grant happens in Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen, in which he plays Fletcher, a greedy private investigator and aspiring screenwriter who tries to blackmail the film’s drug-dealing gangsters for money. Throughout the movie, he serves as an unreliable narrator, telling Charlie Hunnam’s Ray all about the alleged dirt that he has on him and his employer Mickey (played by Matthew McConaughey). Of course, Fletcher only tells Ray some of the story, as he has an ulterior motive.
The Gentlemen is worlds away from the Richard Curtis movies that made Grant a household name back in the day. And while the film is in the same vein as the other crime comedies that Ritchie is known for, the film marks a complete career u-turn for Grant, even when compared to his other outings as a villain.
In the past, Grant’s villainous characters have typically played to his strengths as a sophisticated gent. For example, in Paddington 2, he plays a washed-up actor who moonlights as a master thief in a posh London suburb. In A Very English Scandal, he stars as an Oxford-educated politician who’s very privileged, funny, and narcissistic. Sure, he plays a bad guy in both, but they’re still very Grant-ish roles.
With Paddington 2 and A Very English Scandal, it’s almost as if Grant was poking fun at the way audiences perceive him. He’s no longer a marquee box office star, so seeing him play a has-been actor in a talking bear movie is self-deprecating brilliance. He’s also very posh and educated, making him an ideal candidate to play a British politician. But seeing him play one like Jeremy Thorpe — a charmer who harbored some very dark secrets — made for a more complex rendition of Grant’s notable characteristics.
Of course, Grant isn’t averse to taking risks, either. In Cloud Atlas, he plays six different characters, which include a serial killing rapist and a cannibal. At times he showcases the charming exterior that he’s synonymous with, but he’s a sociopathic savage underneath the friendly facade. The actor is also under heavy prosthetic makeup that makes him unrecognizable at times. However, the Grant we see in The Gentlemen is the most unidentifiable version of the actor to date, despite his face being visible.
In Ritchie’s movie, Grant goes completely against type, which is surprising given that there are roles in the film that are more suited to his sensibilities. The story revolves around upper-class gangsters who live in mansions and mingle with posh country folk. On paper, Grant is the perfect choice to play one of those characters. Instead, he plays a slimy, cockney weasel that wouldn’t seem out of place mingling with the geezers in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch.
Fletcher is delightfully camp, but he’s also deceitful and crooked. He sports shades and rocks a pirate goatee. His accent is common but mischievous. He espouses politically incorrect dialogue and acts inappropriately flirtatious towards those he’s trying to blackmail. Even in his previous villainous roles, Grant has never been this unabashedly offensive and rodent-like. And he is clearly having a ball.
Those who are familiar with Grant’s distrust of the press will probably find Fletcher even more entertaining. In the movie, he gets hired by a tabloid newspaper editor to dig up some dirt that will bury Mickey. There’s nothing wrong with exposing criminals, but the film is quite critical of the press’s general seek and destroy mentality. Grant has campaigned for stronger press regulation in the past, so seeing him play a character that represents the worst side of that profession is hilarious.
Grant is in a good position at the moment. He’s financially set for life and doesn’t crave the spotlight. Whenever he decides to work nowadays, it’s because he’s passionate about a project and wants to surprise audiences. The Gentlemen continues his newfound appreciation for character acting, and it’s further proof that the actor is just as good at being an antagonist as he is at being a dashing leading man. He should be the next Bond villain.