Dignity, and humor. In what is perhaps the most important of the scenes in which he misunderstands and is misunderstood, Wilson draws himself up before a Drug Enforcement Administration officer and spins out a self-justifying monologue that's baffling in vocabulary, direction and motive alike. As if he didn't notice these little difficulties, Stamp plays the scene with head, shoulders and spine smartly aligned, his chin tucked in, his arms hanging loose by his sides unless needed: a picture of rectitude, as would no doubt be shaped by many hundreds of lineups in prison. "In the past, granted, I have been known to redistribute wealth," Stamp intones, giving the armed robber the touch of class he would desire, while at the same time betraying a career criminal's mindset. He assumes the DEA man must be crooked. Slumped mountainously behind his desk, the decidedly uncrooked drug cop (played to insolent perfection by Bill Duke) regards Wilson through drooping eyelids and replies, "There's only one thing I don't understand: every word you just said."
There you have the problem addressed in The Limey: the rupture between Wilson and the world where his daughter lived and died. Now that it's too late, Wilson is trying to bridge the gap, with results that can be funny (in the DEA scene), violent (in various shootouts and beatings) or meditative. Assembling the film in virtuosic fashion, Soderbergh fractures time, allowing a dozen incidents to take place while Wilson walks from one side of the screen to the other; he overlaps moments, making the dialogue within a scene shift unexpectedly against the image; he changes tempo, so that The Limey first signals its identity as a crime thriller and then slows into a quiet montage sequence, observing Wilson as he sits humming in an airplane, a rental car, a motel room.
Perhaps the most striking feature of The Limey is this contemplative tone, to which the film returns again and again. It's also the feature that betrays a culture gap on Soderbergh's part. He's more convincing when he contemplates Wilson--letting the camera dwell on Stamp's face, or intercutting sweet memories of Stamp in Poor Cow--than when he tries to get inside the character's deeper meditations. I sensed an emotional ground-note lacking in the final confrontation between Wilson and Valentine, and in the scenes that evoke Wilson's late-found resignation. If these moments seem more generic than iconic, perhaps it's because the film's point of view is never truly Wilson's. It's Soderbergh's--and he feels the back story, of a daughter's yearning for her father, more keenly than he experiences Wilson's loss.
Still, it's a flaw you might forgive in a film as intelligent and well crafted as The Limey. Maybe the film doesn't plunge you into a character's adrenaline and bile, as happened in Soderbergh's The Underneath, or set loose rushes of pure pleasure, as in Out of Sight. But perhaps there's something valuable even in the distanced artifice of The Limey.
For a multitude of filmmakers, writers and culture botherers, the sixties have become a Great White Whale. How many Ahabs have we seen, caught in the lines of their own harpoons as that vast, submerged power drags them down? How many curses have we heard sputtered against an era they can't defeat and can't leave alone? At least credit Soderbergh with taking a different role, one that allows him to watch the pretty patterns made by the wreck's debris. Call him Ishmael.