Amongst the hash-head community in Britain, Howard Marks is a bone fide legend. Belonging to the same generation as the Rolling Stones, with similar looks, hairstyle and attitude, he has become a paterfamilias of the pro-cannabis movement, a figure whose former criminal activities have given him a Robin Hood or Butch Cassidy status—a freedom fighter with a smile on his face, as his famous moniker suggests.
As ‘careers’ in cannabis go, his has no equal, starting with his introduction to the drug as an Oxford undergraduate in the 1960s, moving quickly through the ranks of smuggling to become a major player through the ’70s and ’80s, whilst having spectacular run-ins with international policing and attaining media celebrity in the process. Later, he became a best-selling author with his autobiography, Mr. Nice, and other books, and also carved out a niche as a stage performer, a DJ and raconteur, pontificating at length about his favourite subject. He could have been a Richard Branson-type alternative entrepreneur, apart from the mere detail that his trade was highly illegal.
Mr. Nice the movie encapsulates this picaresque life, using Marks’ own choice of actor to play him, Rhys Ifans, a fellow Welshman and like-minded friend. The evident chemistry between the two works well, with Ifans in dark wigs slipping easily into another louche Welsh charmer role, assuredly inhabiting the character of ‘Howard Marks’ and making him very sympathetic.
The movie starts with Howard’s teenage life in Glamorganshire, which, shot in black and white, 4 : 3 ratio, has a kitchen sink-drama quality, made stranger, almost Dennis Potteresque, by using Ifans himself rather than a youthful look-alike. Gaining a scholarship to Oxford, Howard mixes with the toffs and posh totty, and like Dorothy entering the land of Oz, his world blossoms into colour and widescreen after having his first toke of dope, soon followed by the inevitable sugar cube of LSD.
This method of referencing the visual formats of the era is further reinforced by blending in actual period background footage, with Howard digitally transposed into the scenes and rendered suitably grainy to match them—a nice touch, giving a contemporary technical leg-up to nostalgia. These early scenes of university life, partying and self-discovery are given a similar treatment to that of druggy films of the era, such as The Trip, Easy Rider and Performance, compounding the period associations yet more. Read more…