Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Is It So Wrong To Break Into Westminster Abbey?

I was going to do a movie review for something just out in theatres today, but it's Robbie Burns Day... so I thought I'd review a film from some years ago with a Scottish theme...

"You may as well go for the Crown Jewels! You'll never get away with it!" ~ Bill Craig

"We fight not for glory, not for wealth, nor honours, but only and alone for freedom, which no man surrenders but with his life." ~ Ian Hamilton

The 2008 film Stone Of Destiny is a character study and a heist film from actor and director Charles Martin Smith, telling the story of a group of Scottish university students in 1950 who scheme to lift the Stone of Scone, otherwise known as the Stone of Destiny, from Westminster Abbey and bring it back to Scottish soil. Ian Hamilton (Charlie Cox) is a student searching for his place in life, involved in the campaign for Scottish home rule. His father is a hard, distant man (played by the magnificent character actor Peter Mullan); his mother assures Ian that his father is proud of him... but Ian wishes he'd say so himself.

Ian and his classmate Bill (Billy Boyd, from the Lord Of The Rings trilogy) find themselves talking about the notion of doing something audacious, to rally the Scots to the cause- and choose the Stone of Destiny, long since in English hands contained within a throne in the Abbey, as that audacious act. They plan together, scheme and prepare... until Bill backs out, worried by what an arrest would mean to his future.

Ian is still dedicated to the cause, pointed in the right direction by a vocal proponent of Scottish home rule, John McCormick (Robert Carlyle). This leads him to another student, Kay Matheson (Kate Mara), who shares his passion for the cause, and to another pair of conspirators and students, Gavin (Stephen McCole) and Alan (Ciaron Kelly). The group set out for England, determined to break into the Abbey at Christmas time, steal back the Stone, and escape for the Highlands in a classic Scottish raid.

Smith has been known as an actor, for such diverse works as American Graffiti, Never Cry Wolf, and perhaps his best known role as the bookish agent in The Untouchables. He has also done a good deal of work as a writer and director in film and television. He's a good storyteller, knows how to pay attention to details, and understands both sides of the cameras quite well. Take a look at another of his works, the adaptation of a Farley Mowat story in The Snow Walker, and he knows how to give us a story rich in characterization and the sense of place. These qualities are all on display in Stone Of Destiny. 

The crew evokes the times in their work. Look at the clothing, the props, even the hair, and it all fits in with the dawn of the Fifties in Scotland and England. Smith chose location shooting around the British isles- and even got rare permission to shoot sequences in the Abbey, surprisingly. The camera work serves the story, and the film moves at a brisk pace. Composer Mychael Danna provides the score, infused with Scottish themes and bagpipes, blending in with the movie very well. And Smith's screenplay lends a good sense of humour into the proceedings.

The casting of the film is interesting. There's a blink and you'll miss it cameo by the real Ian Hamilton, six decades on. Yes, this is based on a real story. As to the main characters? Carlyle has an eclectic history as an actor of various parts, and he plays McCormick with a gruff but sympathetic sensibility. He believes in his cause, is supportive of the heist, as much as he can be, since he is the public face of the larger home rule movement and can't actually take part. Billy Boyd, who spent more than enough time in Middle Earth as a hobbit in the first Tolkien trilogy by Peter Jackson, brings something of the same sense of humour and wry timing as Bill, and though he backs out on the plan early, his reasons are understandable, and it doesn't mean he's quite turned his back on the cause.

McCole and Kelly are contrasting actors in two different roles as Gavin and Alan. This is the only film that I've seen either of them in, but they bring both characters to life. McCole plays Gavin as the boisterous, amused-at-the-world engineering student, big and gruff. You get to like him pretty quickly, even if he can drink anyone under the table. Kelly is much more subdued as Alan, a quiet, shy, and studious young man, hard to come out of his shell, but as we see more of him, we see someone who can improvise quickly, and who's just as dedicated to the heist as anyone else.

The two leads are well cast. I've liked Kate Mara in pretty much anything I've seen her in, and she does well here. She's outspoken, smart, and passionate. There's a strength in the character, and she plays off that very well. Her take on a Scottish accent works well enough here. And there's a good deal of chemistry in the way she banters with Charlie Cox throughout the film.

Cox is terrific as Ian; he is committed to the cause, something he believes in, and he's willing to break the law for what he sees as the right thing to do. Cox also brings a roguish scoundrel kind of sensibility to the character, something we also see in his work in Stardust. He is determined to carry out his plan, comes across as a good leader for an unlikely raid, and deals with problems as they come along quite well. I'd like to see him in other roles- he's one of the actors I could plausibly see playing one of my two leading characters in my writings.

Stone Of Destiny is a whimsical comedy, a heist film, and an interesting character study. Charles Martin Smith assembles a cast and crew that tells a story that has an uplifting kind of quality to it. It also has a very Scottish sense of humour, and it appeals to the side of me that wants to go wander in the Highlands for a month or three.


  1. I've never seen this movie, but you've done a great job of reviewing it, as always!

    (I still think you should be getting paid for your reviews....)

  2. I've never seen that. I really like several of those actors though. I'll have to check it out.

  3. Gonna have to see if Netflix or Amazon has this one! Sounds like something my guy and I would both like!

    Nice review!

  4. I haven't heard of this one, but will definitely be checking it out. Sounds like something I'd love, and even better, can convince the significant other to watch, too!

  5. I've heard of this but didn't see it. I think I'll make a point of looking it up.

  6. I was unaware of the movie or the backstory and got quite hooked on your fab review. Will check this movie out. Thanks!

  7. @Norma: thank you!

    @Krisztina: you should!

    @Cheryl: with any luck Netflix should, but Amazon will.

    @Meradeth: good!

    @Joanna: excellent!

    @Kittie: you're welcome!

  8. I've never heard of this movie, but I do love a good heist plot. :)

  9. This must have passed me by!! I don't remember this film at all! LOL! But it sounds lovely - perfect for Burns night! Take care

  10. This is a great movie. I enjoyed the adventure.

  11. Never saw the film, but I love the story!

  12. I'll have to find this movie and watch it. Good review.

  13. This is a great movie! I cried at the end.....My family is from Scotland.


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