Misha Glenny’s 2008 book McMafia depicted modern Russian gangsters as a sophisticated lot, running syndicates across continents, buying tony properties in London and Dubai, and killing rivals with impunity. The book showed how these oligarchs have redefined organised crime with the active connivance of the Russian state.
BBC has adapted Glenny’s book into a show of the same name by fictionalising the narrative. James Norton stars as Alex Godman, the British-educated son of a Russian mafia family whose patriarch lives in exile in London after his assets are overtaken by Vadim, a rival.
Godman runs his own fund in the City and has an American girlfriend who works as an evangelist for responsible capitalism. In other words, he has little to do with his family’s past. But his father rues the loss of status, and his uncle works behind the scenes to win back the family’s honour. Things take a turn for the worse when his uncle botches an assassination attempt on Vadim who vows to take down the Godman family.
Like the best crime dramas, McMafia weaves an intricate web of familial obligations in the backdrop of shocking insouciance towards bloodshed. “I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” Godman says at a crucial moment, as his willful ignorance begins to clash with the unpleasant truth of the roots of his privilege.
McMafia is best when it describes the changing nature of organised crime. Eager to protect his family from Vadim, Godman seeks the help of an Israeli investor, Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn), who has his own beef with the gangster. “These fights are not fought on the street,” Kleiman tells Godman. “They are fought in boardrooms.”
What unravels is a transnational money laundering scheme aimed at bleeding Vadim dry. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the Mumbai ganglord who will help Kleiman and Godman by exposing Vadim’s contacts and getting his drugs confiscated at the port. Siddiqui is his usual best, even if the effect of his delivery is lost somewhat in the English dialogue. He has had little to do thus far, but thankfully his is not a blink-and-miss part.
McMafia works because it ably segues the seedy underbelly of crime with the smoother financial transactions that underpin it. In one scene, Godman is asked if he is a gangster and he replies, “No, banker.” The look on his face and the tone of the show indicate that the difference between the two may not be as big as expected.
What McMafia also does is expose the other side of financial malfeasance, the one separate from Wall Street churning out instruments no one understood. Here, the crime is simpler to understand, but more far-reaching. Predictably, the Russian embassy in London has already issued a protest against the show, but no one watching it will doubt the long arm of the state.