For reasons which will become clear, McMafia is not a drama about the nefarious dealings of the Glasgow underworld. Created by Hossein Amini and director James Watkins, it’s “inspired” by Misha Glenny’s 2008 book McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime, a study of 21st century global criminal and financial networks.
Although rooted in grim authenticity, however, McMafia initially reminds of last year’s The Night Manager (it’s another co-production between BBC and AMC), in its tale of a handsome Englishman caught up in a web of criminal intrigue. It’s also a shamelessly telegenic travelogue, taking in Prague, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Paris and Ravenscourt Park underground station.
We begin in opulent Mumbai. A Mr Vadim from Russia is in conference with a Mr Chopra, who assures his visitor he is “god”, with control of the police and port authorities – the ideal go-to person for someone like Vadim, who wishes to transport heroin through the city. Assured, Vadim leaves. However, in an underpass, a woman riding pillion pulls up alongside Vadim’s car, smiles and attaches a bomb to the side of his vehicle. Ka-boom!
Cut to London and our first glimpse of Alex Godman, descending the stairs at a London charity auction. Like Tom Hiddleston, he is hewn from the finest British timber. At the table are his partner, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), who works for “ethical banker” Sydney Bloom. His own family, however, are exiled Russians – his father, Dimitri looks vodka-ravaged, soul-sick, grumbling when his son speaks to him in English rather than Russian. Later, Alex must persuade him down from the roof in the latest in a series of drunken suicidal episodes.
Casting Leviathan actor Aleksey Serebryakov as Dimitri is a coup, and he’ll hopefully be able to do more than act sullen and miffed. His doting mother is a picture of fading elegance. Then there is Uncle Boris, Dimitri’s brother. Pasty, loud, sporting a white dinner jacket, he recalls Fredo in the Godfather – but Boris is a player. And, it emerges, it was he who ordered the unsuccessful hit on Vadim. And he is now curious about who wanted him dead. In hospital, he is visited by Ilya, a close friend and senior member of the Federal Intelligence Agency.
Alex loves his family deeply but business-wise he keeps a distance. He has set up his own investment company and prides himself on playing with a straight English bat, avoiding any associations with the dubious Russian money into which he was born. When Boris proposes that he go into business with an associate of his in Israel, Alex firmly demurs.
Back at his office, Alex learns of an article about his company’s supposed Russian links. Fabricated rumours, but now investors are withdrawing. Reluctantly, he approaches an English colleague, Alan, to see if he will help make up the investment shortfall. But oily Alan only agrees to do so in return for a chunk of the company. Desperate, Alex agrees to meet with Boris’s Israeli chum, a Mr Kleiman, after all, and they travel to Tel Aviv.
Having stoically fended off the amorous attentions of one Tanya in a nightclub, in the midst of an air raid siren, Alex is introduced to Kleiman. If he is a gangster, he looks like the kindler, gentler, Corbyn-esque sort. He has made his pile in “shipping and entertainments”, as one does. It’s clear that he is a direct rival to Vadim.
Back in London, Alex learns from his colleague that it was Boris who spread the rumour that caused the company’s crisis. Alex goes up to Boris’s home to confront him but when there, finds that his uncle is entertaining guests, three bald Russians seeking cash to go to war with Vadim. Over caviar, however, one of them attacks Boris with a knife, slitting his throat. Alex fends off his own assailant and escapes to the basement, where he phones to warn his family that they too are under attack; a successful call to the police prompts the assailants to flee.
At Boris’s funeral, Tanya reappears, lying to Rebecca that he and Alex are old friends. He does not correct her. He is handed a card by Tanya’s associate with a sim card attached – this is how he will communicate with Kleiman. They meet in London, where Kleiman explains that the reason McDonalds is bigger than Burger King is simply that there are more of them – he wishes to apply the same business model to destroy Vadim. McMafia, see? Alex protests he is a “banker not a gangster” but he’s sinking visibly into the mire.
Concerned for his distraught and broken father, Alex meets Vadim in Paris, essentially to beg for his father’s life – he’s a harmless old man, he says. It’s an emollient exchange charged with underlying menace. “Are you harmless?” Vadim asks Alex. No response. Credits.