For a simple gangster film, I find that there are almost too many angles by which one could discuss John Mackenzie's The Long Good Friday. But one must start somewhere, and I shall start here: this is a film much concerned with keeping as much information from the audience as possible.

At the most basic level, this takes place on the level of plot: the screenplay by Barrie Keeffe opens, if not quite in medias res, far enough along in the plot that we don't quite have any idea what's going on until details are revealed sometimes far along the road. We know instinctively that the gruff Cockney businessman Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is up to something not quite good from the moment we first see him swaggering down the halls of Heathrow Airport, but we have no idea what that is. At a cocktail reception he hosts later on for an American businessman, we see many people whose histories are unknown to us discussing the big development project Harold has planned for a certain portion of the riverfront, but the details of this plan are only hinted at. As the film progresses, we quickly learn that Harold is a gangster and the partygoers are the city officials in his pocket, and we later on learn that his great scheme is to build a state-of-the-art entertainment district in an attempt to draw the Olympic games to London. All of the film's exposition follows this model, in which the audience has no context for names or places and simply tries to juggle information until some tossed-off line provides an anchor for entire plot threads. It's exposition the hard way, which is to say, the way I like it.

As if it weren't enough that we have no idea what's going on, we also have no idea where; Mackenzie deliberately avoids establishing shots for most of the film, and we are constantly thrust into physical locations that seem to have no connection to each other or to London itself. The opening of the film takes place in a house in a field at sunrise; we never find out where this is, nor are we ever really told what goes on inside. While this is an extreme case, it's typical of the film's progression, in which action often takes place in previously undefined spaces that just seem to pop up as needed.

This is a bold and brilliant way to structure a film that is essentially the story of a man who needs information and can't find it. Harold is a big deal, perhaps the biggest gangster in London, perhaps the single force guiding the entire British underworld, and in two days - Good Friday and Holy Saturday - his empire cracks apart because of a series of apparently unmotivated attacks by persons unknown. We the audience are generally privy to a bit more information than Harold, but the trade-off, to ensure that we are ultimately just as much in the dark, is that we have to construct the film's society through randomly distributed scraps. Watching The Long Good Friday is, after a fashion, very much like living through it.

The next layer of the film - and I'm not going to pretend this is at all a natural progression from thought to thought - and then I'm going to call attention to it using the compound sentence from hell - annoyed yet? - is its religious element. Obviously a film with "Good Friday" in its title isn't particularly afraid of making sure the audience gets the Christian symbolism, but The Long Good Friday goes one step further, featuring a car bomb outside of a church and a man nailed to the ground by his palms. That's just for the literally-minded, though. For even when it's not dabbling in Mel Gibson-style anvil dropping, the film functions as bizarre religious allegory.

Good Friday is, of course, the commemoration of the suffering and death of Jesus as the culmination of his adoption of the sins of all mankind. On the particular Good Friday in the film, we see another man suffering because of his ambition to leave the world a better place. Not that Harold Shand is a Christ-figure, for God's sake; he's a murdering criminal with a bestial need for revenge. But he is a sort of funhouse-mirror distortion. His great project is not undertaken for personal gain, but because of his fervent wish to create a better future for his beloved London. He detests anarchy and violence for his own sake, and as his empire spins entirely out of control, his cry of anguish is that the ten years of peace he was instrumental in creating have broken down. Not that he doesn't get a fair cut of profit from the peace and urban growth; but it's not at all clear that this is his primary motivation.

It's probably a stretch to call The Long Good Friday a parody of Christianity, but its representation of Christ's modern-day doppelganger as a grubby little crimelord is certainly compelling. The way that the IRA is worked in first, as background noise and then as a full-fledged plot point, ties into this - after all, the explicit difference between the Irish and the English is religious above all else, and serves to reinforce, rather than deny, that the Christian religion in the modern world is a bit grubby and bloodstained itself.

So much else to talk about, that I just can't get to! Ah, well, that's the sign of a great movie. But it wouldn't do to wrap up an exploration of The Long Good Friday without paying the proper obeisance to the two Olympic figures who reign over the film, which is my hackneyed way of saying that Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren are both fucking fantastic. Mirren has the much the smaller role, of course, playing Harold's diametrically-opposed girlfriend Victoria, well-spoken, upper-class (she jokes, or perhaps tells the truth, about going to school with Princess Anne) and diplomatic where Harold is crude, lowly and violent. It's a bit hard to tell where the script ends and the performance begins, but that's always true of Mirren; and her carriage in the role is so perfect and commanding that you never permit yourself to stop and wonder how exactly a woman like this ended up with a man like that. She ended up where she did because in Mirren's performance, that is exactly where she is required.

But it's Hoskins's movie all the way. This was his first film lead, after his breakthrough in Dennis Potter's miniseries Pennies from Heaven, and he owns it like he'd been acting since the moment he first drew breath. It's terribly easy to say that an actor "disappears" into a role, but it fits here perfectly. There is not a trace of acting on screen; no sense that a man is playing at being a gangster. There is only the gangster, and while I still wouldn't call it the actor's finest moment (that would be in the grossly under-appreciated Mona Lisa), it is nothing shy of total perfection. The Long Good Friday rests entirely upon Harold and his response to the world, and Harold is above all else a triumph of Bob Hoskins. It's a spiritual thing to see a performance this good, I tells ya.