I first discovered Mark Rylance in the summer of 2001, when I bought a groundling ticket at the Shakespeare’s Globe in London to see a performance of the Bard’s Cymbeline. Rylance was artistic director of the Globe at the time, appearing in Cymbeline in a supporting role as Cloten, but he stood out to me, with his confident, droll delivery, sad-but-twinkling eyes, furrowed brow, and pursed mouth. The next year, back in the States, I rented a DVD of Angels and Insects, a Victorian drama in which Rylance plays a low-born naturalist (inspired, no doubt, by the real-life Alfred Russel Wallace) who finds himself in a weird love triangle involving his wealthy benefactor’s unattainable daughter (Patsy Kensit) and the household governess (Kristin Scott Thomas). It’s a criminally underrated film, in my opinion, that comes with a shock I’ve never forgotten; but I’ve also never forgotten Rylance. He’s had a long and successful career, but he’s still embedded in that tier of actors to whom mainstream moviegoers respond, “Who?” and then, “Ohhh, that guy!”
You’ll know Rylance from his Academy Award-winning role as the Soviet spy opposite Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies, as sixteenth century political schemer Thomas Cromwell in the mini-series Wolf Hall, and as the quietly courageous Mr. Dawson in the World War II thriller Dunkirk. You’ll also know him in quirky roles from more widely recognized films as Ready Player One, The BFG, and Don’t Look Up.
Rylance’s latest project is the feature film The Outfit, in which he leads as Leonard “English” Burling, a former Saville Row tailor (or, more properly, a “cutter,” as he reminds his associates) quietly plying his trade in 1950s Chicago. As his introductory voice-over explains, he takes pride in knowing the ins-and-outs of bespoke craftsmanship, the subtleties of fit and fabric and presentation, the deep satisfaction of sending a man out the door wearing a handmade suit that will last him the rest of his life.
With no remaining family, Leonard nurses an unrequited hope that his receptionist and assistant Mable (Zoey Deutsch) might apprentice with him and carry on the business; Mable has other ideas, dreaming of leaving seedy Chicago and traveling the world.
Leonard’s shop, as it happens, doubles as an unlikely collection point for the Boyles, an Irish “outfit” currently at war with the rival La Fontaines, the Chicago PD, and the FBI. The MacGuffin at the center of the story is a newfangled cassette tape, purportedly recorded by an unidentified rat, containing incriminating conversations that could put the Boyles away for life. Head mobster Roy Boyle (Simon Russell Beale) is anxious to find a machine that can play the tape, thereby uncovering the rat; meanwhile, his mercurial son Richie (Dylan O’Brien) has managed to get himself injured in a shootout. Knowing that a hospital will bring cops and feds raining down on them, Roy’s young lieutenant Francis (Johnny Flynn) drags the wounded Richie to Leonard’s shop so the unwilling tailor can “sew him up.”
Thus, the stage is set for a tense drama of wits and nerve. As befits Rylance’s long resume in the theater, The Outfit takes place exclusively in the close confines of Leonard’s shop. (Indeed, the entire presentation has the feel of a production intended for live performance.) It won’t be a great spoiler to say the audience soon discovers that Leonard’s practiced air of deference and discretion is just a cool surface hiding a quick mind and a masterful poker face. As the twists and turns come faster and faster, Leonard must find a way to square the circle of competing gangland imperatives and come out the other side alive and unperforated. By the end, a film that promised to be about the crisis that arises in the life of an everyman when unignorable danger and disaster come knocking transforms into a wild ride of reversals and double-crosses more akin to films like Knives Out (or, from a generation ago, Death Wish). The astonishing revelations heap one upon the other until you’ll forget Leonard started out as an unassuming tailor and would not be surprised if he suddenly ripped open his own skin to reveal the lizardman beneath.
In short, audiences will find The Outfit an enthusiastic and exciting ride, but it’s not the starring masterpiece that Rylance deserves.