The latest movie from the prolific and indefatigable Ridley Scott pivots on a screenplay that is always on the money.

All the Money in the World, drawn from John Pearson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, is set in 1973 and is packed with observations about the top 1% that ring true in the present. The plot revolves around a kidnapping fuelled and foiled by greed. The scent of ill-begotten riches draws a group of Italian kidnappers led by Cinquanta (Romain Duris) to Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the 16-year-old grandson of American billionaire J Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). The abductors demand a ransom of $17 million, only to realise that they are up against an altogether more sophisticated kind of criminal.

Getty refuses to pay up – what if kidnappers started picking up all his other grandchildren, he wonders. He is unmoved by the quiet despair of his former daughter-in-law Gail (Michelle Williams), who is divorced from his son, and hires his chief deal-maker Fletcher (Mark Wahlberg) as a hostage negotiator, but only to haggle down the asking rate.

There’s a darkly comic undertone to the proceedings that Scott and writer David Scarpa keep out of sight. Instead, the movie is a sobering study of extreme wealth that is both sweeping and intimate. The insensitivity and entitlement that comes from being filthy rich isn’t Getty’s burden alone to bear, but his pettiness is surely a unique trait.

The movie gives its unlikeable lead character several moments of self-revelation. Getty is dismissive of the title that was suggested for a book he wrote in 1965: How to Get Rich, he said, missed the point about his achievements. He choose instead to call it How to Be Rich. As he explained, it’s not about making money, but it’s about what you do with it.

For Getty, that meant splashing his cash on artefacts and objets d’art. David Scarpa’s screenplay draws neat parallels between the lifeless paintings and sculptures that crowd Getty’s mansion and the flesh-and-blood human beings for whom his stony heart does not have a single tear.

All the Money in the World.

The muted tones of Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography acquire a sepulchral tinge in the sequences featuring Getty. Christopher Plummer shines in a role that was originally intended for Kevin Spacey, who was kicked off the production after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against him. Spacey was to have played the role with facial prosthetics; Plummer’s cold and menacing visage is entirely his own.

The other cast members are equally effective, including Michelle Williams, who does a fine job of portraying Gail’s helplessness without descending into melodrama, and Mark Wahlberg and Romain Duris, both of whom are dismayed by Getty’s cruelty. Charlie Plummer, who was brilliant in Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete (2017), is suitably vulnerable as the luckless teenager with a surname that does him no favours.

An edifying speech by Fletcher to Getty is a misfire in an otherwise cool-headed movie, which allows the repulsiveness of Getty’s reaction to speak for itself. The overdramatised climax also disrupts the otherwise balanced tone of events. But the ending draws a startling connection between Getty’s love for collectibles and the art world, which doesn’t always question the provenance of its donations.

Getty was right: it’s not about getting rich, but about being rich.