Helen Tope reviews The Laundromat, showing in our cinema until Thursday 21 November.
The Laundromat attempts to unsettle us right from the start. We meet our narrators, smartly suited and impeccably groomed, walking through a primeval landscape. They explain the story of finance to us, from exchange and barter, to the intricacies of credit. As we leave behind the desert and head into a nightclub, we move from early man into a contemporary world where tax avoidance is very much a political issue.
The release of the Panama Papers in 2016, the leaked documents being the property of law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailed a scheme of how the super-rich can avoid paying tax, and it’s all perfectly legal. The encrypted documents became a media sensation: arrests were made (including Mossack and Fonseca themselves). But the suspicion, then as now, is that the information within the Panama Papers barely scratches the surface.
It becomes clear that our narrators, played by Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman, are complicit in this story. As lawyers Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, Oldman and Banderas attempt to explain the process by which the rich stay rich, and the poor pay the price.
Director Steven Soderbergh illustrates this complex journey through a fictional incident. Retirees Joe and Ellen Martin plan to finish their vacation with a short cruise on a nearby lake. A freak wave hits the boat and it capsizes, drowning Joe and twenty others.
When Ellen (Meryl Streep) prepares to make a claim against the boat company, it emerges that the boat owners recently changed insurance companies. Looking to save a little money on their premiums, they go with a much cheaper provider. It is only when the boat company enquire about issuing claims, that they find out that their company has passed customer accounts onto a ‘shell’ company residing in Nevis, an island in the West Indies. The insurers, thanks to some legal sleight of hand, are not liable for any costs and Ellen – wanting answers – seeks them out.
Ordinarily, this would be the start of a great sleuthing story – an Erin Brockovich, David and Goliath-style chase. But Soderbergh, keen to explain how and why the Ellen Martins of the world find themselves in this position, takes us on a convoluted journey of narratives. Some are connected to Ellen, others are not. We meet an impressive cast of characters, all working the system.
As we are led down a series of narrative paths, it becomes apparent that The Laundromat has no interest in playing it safe. While the lines of morality are plainly marked, we delve into another world, where accountability disappears into a vanishing point, and looking the other way becomes the norm.
When viewed from this angle, Soderbergh’s film is a kaleidoscopic portrayal of greed and corruption. The good end happily, the bad unhappily – but as we wind up the smaller details, it is clear what is on Soderbergh’s mind is not a tying up of narrative strands, but a confrontation of ugly truths that reach out of the screen towards us.
Soderbergh’s plea for audiences to politically engage is a final sounding note that gets lost in the cacophony of stories. The clarity of the film’s message is obscured by a dazzling but confusing patchwork of narratives. The story of a philandering businessman, for example, is given far too much screen time, for comparatively little pay-off.
Focusing on Ellen Martin’s story, as she examines the world of shell companies and tax avoidance, would have made a more traditional film, but the emotional impact would have been greater. It is far easier to emotionally invest in one character, rather than several. Even when the trail leads us to Panama, and the offices of Mossack and Fonseca, and Jurgen and Ramon are arrested for their part in the tax avoidance scheme, the resolution feels ultimately like a hollow victory.
There is a lack of focus which is disappointing, as the film isn’t short of things to say. Based on journalist Jake Bernstein’s bestseller, Secrecy World, the film lays bare how the super-rich are able to avoid paying tax. The game is loaded in favour of the elite, and the legal loopholes that allow this to continue, still haven’t been addressed three years on.
But The Laundromat does succeed in its casting. As the real-life Mossack and Fonseca, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman are having way too much fun as the carefree lawyers. Strolling through the film, Oldman and Banderas are a surprisingly effective double act. Wearing a series of increasingly elaborate blazers, Oldman and Banderas clearly relish the role of scoundrel. Their chemistry lifts a film that, at times, gets bogged down in its own detail. A decision to edit the story down to the core cast, would have turned this film around. But as it is, we are left with a story that promises much, but delivers too little.
The Laundromat has all the components of a terrific, thrilling puzzle. But by reaching too high, Soderbergh doesn’t allow us to feel the outrage for long enough, and a film that had the potential to raise the roof, leaves us feeling a bit short-changed. As the narrative slips away and disintegrates in the final scenes, Soderbergh just can’t make the pieces fit.