When the story of Nick Leeson hit the headlines in '95, there were cries of disbelief in financial institutions throughout the world. How could one man bring about the collapse of the world's oldest merchant bank? At first, even the head of Barings claimed it was some sort of conspiracy. The truth is even stranger, and it was Sir David Frost who first saw the story's potential as a film. After interviewing Leeson in prison, he took on the role of executive producer and bought the rights to the his book.
Then the film sat on the shelf for a year, while Leeson, who had been imprisoned in Singapore for his crimes, awaited release. He gets out this summer, which in a timely move for the film-makers, just happens to coincide with the worldwide release of The Phantom Menace - - which also happens to feature Ewan McGregor quite heavily.
McGregor's certainly one of Rogue Trader's strengths. He's in virtually every scene, and not only does he make the character of Leeson a believable one, but he also makes the audience empathise. What becomes clear is Leeson's isolation: from his wife (Friel) who thinks he can do no wrong, from his employers (public-school types who believe working-class chancers like Leeson will make their reputation) and from his employees (poorly trained with no financial background).
In this film, the blame for the collapse is shared squarely between Leeson and his employers. He's continually calling on London for extra funds, failing to supply paperwork and fudging close examination of his accounts, while his seniors happily let this drift. What also becomes clear is the strength of the class divide - each side shows a total lack of comprehension of how the other works, for the simple reason that they don't know any other "chaps like that".
That most people already know the conclusion of the story isn't a problem. Rogue Trader is intriguing because it offers a believable version of how the disaster came to happen. The direction is slick and the attention to detail conveys realism without crossing over from drama to documentary.
Locations include the Singapore cafe in which the real-life Leesons ate breakfast every day, and the Off-Key Bar where Leeson used to drink after work. The Stock Exchange, meanwhile, was convincingly recreated at Pinewood. But the sense of reality is so great that the few incongruities there are become far too evident - it's really jarring to see Leeson using a teeny mobile phone when it's more likely that the average mobile five years ago would have been the size of a brick.
But that's a minor criticism. Rogue Trader's only real fault lies in the nature of the story. It's likely this might get a much bigger audience on prime-time TV, where people who're vaguely intrigued by Leeson's tale could tune in. It's harder to see them forking out as readily to see it on the big screen.
An intriguing story, which reveals much about the events surrounding Nick Leeson's arrest. Both McGregor and Friel turn in excellent, sympathetic performances. It's just a shame it's obviously more geared to TV-watchers than cinema-goers.