Hiller (Bernard Hill) is a man on the run, complicated by the fact that he is accompanied by his stepson (Kieran O'Brien) who he looks after now his wife, the boy's mother, has left him. They check into yet another bed and breakfast today, making up another alias to go by and are pleased when no questions are asked, but what Hiller hasn't noticed is there is a man following them. When they're out and about the next day, he realises the game might well be up and has to split with the boy in an attempt to lose their pursuers, but Hiller owes some very nasty men a lot of money...
So they're not going to allow him to get away as easily as that, and besides they have a job for him to carry out whether he wants to or not. Bellman and True was made by George Harrison's Handmade Films, as were quite a few British productions during the eighties, though this was also the work of Euston Films, the company which had made such television programmes as The Sweeney. There was a reason for that, which was in an unusual move this was made for both the cinema and the small screen, so around a couple of years after you could have caught this on the big screen you could have settled down in front of the TV and watched an expanded version in three parts.
Whether it was truly worth spending so long with was a moot point, as for a movie it was already fairly lengthy, and unless you'd really fallen in love with the characters the shorter version was as good as either. In a rather claustrophobic fashion the plot played out as Hiller and the boy were held captive by the motley gang of criminals who want the man to break into a London bank, or at least make it a lot easier for them to do so. He does this by cracking the code on the bank's computer, because this was the decade where such electronics really caught the imagination of filmmakers, so no matter if this aspect felt crowbarred in they were going to have computers in their movie, so there.
As it turns out the technology business masked what was your basic heist movie, distinguished by its British setting rather than being some gimmicky American effort from the previous decade, which Bellman and True would have suited quite nicely. Not that it felt late to the party, for as we know heist movies were extremely popular in the thriller genre during the nineties, but this had such a downbeat mood to it that there was very little flashy or containing audacious setpieces. The budget wouldn't stretch to it, yet even so there were scenes which worked up a decent degree of tension, mainly thanks to director Richard Loncraine's dedication to building and sustaining the characters and their motivations, with Hill's tightly wound, harrassed but low key acting keeping things interesting.
Elsewhere Richard Hope made an impression as the apparent leader of the criminals, given to nicknaming Hiller "Dear Heart" in a curious touch, and Frances Tomelty made you uncomfortable as the tart with very little heart, not that she's letting Hiller realise that. O'Brien was making his mark in children's television at the time, though now he'll be most notorious for 9 Songs twenty years later where he performed actual sex acts for the camera. Nothing like that here, as the drama of the first half gave way to some neat, suspenseful sequences where the heist does not go as well as planned (as is par for the course in such films), and a memorable escape with simultaneously the world's worst and best getaway driver. Right through to the final seconds you're wondering if Hiller's luck will change and if he'll be able to get away, applying his technical know-how to his dilemma, so in that way it may have been a minor work, but it kept you guessing. The title is from lyrics of the old folk song D'Ye Ken John Peel? Music by Colin Towns.