The Long Good Friday: Trapped by Time
[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Things change, Harold. Don't get nostalgic. Look to the future.
Harold Shand, the protagonist of John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday, is a walking, tough-talking, volatile contradiction.
On the one hand, he’s a shrewd, ambitious businessman. He takes great pains to project an air of sophistication, hosting lavish parties on his yacht and wining and dining various “clients” and “investors.” He frequently pontificates about London’s bright future—and, more specifically, about the role he intends to play in shaping it:
I'm not a politician. I'm a businessman, with a sense of history. I'm also a Londoner. And today is a day of great historical significance for London. Our country's not an island any more. We're a leading European state. And I believe this is the decade London will become Europe's capital.
On the other hand, he’s still a common criminal. His thick Cockney accent betrays his humble origins; indeed, after a group of street urchins extorts him for “protection,” he wistfully reminisces that he “got his start” the same way. To a certain extent, this respect for his past is admirable; he laments the fact that drugs and poverty have so thoroughly devastated the working class, and sincerely wishes to restore his country to its former “glory.” It is, however, also severely limiting, making him rather inflexible in his methods. When he learns that the IRA is responsible for his organization’s current woes, for example, he deals with them as he would any other rival gang—despite his advisors’ repeated (and entirely reasonable) objections.
This thematic conflict reaches its pinnacle during the film’s conclusion, when Shand is abducted by a pair of Irish assassins. Sitting in the backseat of his hijacked car, staring down the barrel of Pierce Brosnan's pistol, our hero can only silently contemplate every choice and mistake that led him to this moment. A kaleidoscope of emotions flashes across his face: shock, confusion, disbelief, anger, fear, regret—and, ultimately, resignation.
Finally, Harold runs out of past events on which to reflect, leaving him to gaze helplessly into a future that no longer exists—whereupon the movie abruptly cuts to black.