The values of competence seem greater during dire movie seasons. "Flawless," a diamond heist flick set in 1960 London, isn't close to the best film I'll see this year, but it's assured and neatly crafted - the time zips by while you're watching it.
The director is Michael Radford, who has solid, literate work like "1984," "White Mischief," and "Il Postino" on his ledger. Next to them, "Flawless" is a gimcrack, a genre exercise, yet it's a confidence game in the best sense of the phrase. Radford knows the rules - when to bend them, when to break them, and when to play by them. That's an increasingly rare skill.
All this and Demi Moore giving a good performance. She plays Laura Quinn, an American-born, Oxford-educated executive at the all-powerful London Diamond Corporation who's so sick of being passed over for promotion that she goes in on a robbery plot with a cagey night janitor named Hobbs (Michael Caine).
All right, that's disingenuous: Moore's really playing Joan Crawford circa 1952. The rectilinear shoulders, the tight-lipped intensity, the absence of any sense of irony whatsoever - it's all there, and it works. Moore has always been an actress of limited range (to put it kindly), but every so often she gets handed a role within those limits and she bats it out of the park. (That said, if she ever puts on blackface like Crawford did in "Torch Song," it's probably time to call it a day.)
So it is here. Laura has hit the glass ceiling, and all around her are smirking, titled old farts who resent her gender and her classless roots. The chairman of London Diamond is Sir Milton Ashtoncroft (Joss Ackland), the visual equivalent of a harrumph; his chief insurer is a scoundrel named Sinclair (Derren Nesbitt). Both are ripe for the plucking, and "Flawless" takes pains to remind us that no one's innocent in the international diamond trade, least of all the men at the top.
Hobbs, by contrast, skulks around at the bottom, invisible to the executives whose wastebins he empties - of course he should rob the place. Caine makes him a shabby little man with a shabby little smile, baiting the trap for Laura with finesse. Just a few diamonds from the vault during evening cleanup, he says. They won't be missed and we'll be rich.
Radford and screenwriter Edward Anderson have a bit of fun when the company installs newfangled video security cameras and forces the pair to rethink their plans; the ensuing close-ups of VTR screens and ticking clocks are straight out of an old "Mission: Impossible" episode. Yet because the setup is simple and, on the movie's terms, believable, we go along for the ride.
At a certain critical juncture, Hobbs changes the nature of the game, and Laura is forced to play to both sides of the room. I'll say no more other than to note that "Flawless" takes a goofy, baroque risk with the appearance of Finch (Lambert Wilson), the insurance company's chief investigator and a proto-metrosexual who inwardly swoons whenever he sees Laura. (I'm not sure what turns him on more, her guilt or her shoulder pads.)
At this point, Radford's clearly riffing on old Hollywood women's pictures - if this were 1952, Finch would be played by Paul Henreid - but the heist subplot keeps twisting along, and there's a tablespoon of "The Third Man" in there too. Caine has dealt with mulligan stews like this plenty of times, and he serves it up like a professional. When Hobbs's true motivations are finally made clear, the pieces fit together with a satisfying, almost audible snap.
Because this is all tosh, really - we know it, Radford knows it, Caine knows it (Moore doesn't) - "Flawless" is swaddled in pleasurable craftsmanship. Richard Greatrex's cinematography and Sophie Becher's production design gleam with hints of Swinging London on the horizon, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five" fills the soundtrack, Paul Desmond's sax solo seducing Laura into daydreams of ill-gotten lucre.
The one flaw of "Flawless," in fact, is that Moore never conveys the thrill of what Laura's doing - the dirty, liberating eroticism of theft. I'm not sure she has the acting chops. The star strides through this nonsense without once cracking a smile, the strain of keeping the plot straight in her head apparently giving her ulcers. She's the only person here not having a good time.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the saxophone solo in the Dave Brubeck Quartet piece "Take Five" was misattributed in the movie review of "Flawless" in yesterday's Weekend section. The solo was by Paul Desmond, who wrote the song.