The Penny Black (Photo: Laemmle Theatres)
THE PENNY BLACK
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Joe Saunders
STARS Will Cassayd-Smith, Roman the Russian
The con is on — maybe — in the new documentary The Penny Black.
The subject is a young guy named Will Cassayd-Smith, who comes to the filmmakers with a strange story. He was minding his own business at his Los Angeles apartment complex when a neighbor he barely knows — a Russian named Roman — hands over a massive stamp collection and asks Will to safeguard it. As Roman explains, he’s going away to Arizona for a couple of weeks and will soon return to collect the binders containing the countless stamps. When Will asks why him, Roman states that he doesn’t want to leave it with his wife and, since Will is a stranger, he doesn’t have anything to gain by cheating him. It makes no sense, but Will goes with the flow.
Roman takes off as planned, and so does the wife. But after the designated two weeks, Roman doesn’t return. And then months pass. And then years. All the while, director Joe Saunders keeps in touch with Will to see how the saga will unfold. They also conduct some research into the stamps and learn that the whole collection, which includes a penny black (the world’s first adhesive postage stamp, created in the U.K. in 1840), is worth over a million dollars.
The questions fly fast and furious. Do these stamps really belong to Roman, or did he steal them? Why would he leave such a valuable collection in the hands of a complete stranger? Did he ever plan on returning to collect them? And once it’s revealed that Will is the son of a bona fide con artist, one who was hunted down by the feds and eventually abandoned his family, does that play into his repeated declarations that he’s honest and wants to do the right thing?
Eventually, one of the binders — the one containing the most valuable stamps — goes missing, leading the filmmakers to obviously suspect that Will pinched it and sold it. But Will denies it, stating that he has no idea what happened to it. He suggests his ex-girlfriend might have taken it, even though he obviously doesn’t believe that himself; nevertheless, Saunders and his team get in touch with her just to make sure.
There’s much more to the tale than this, including the hiring of a private investigator, a trip to Arizona, a meeting with a woman who states that her late father’s stamp collection was stolen, and, for a climactic pow, a concerted effort to finally locate the elusive Roman.
The Penny Black is clearly a movie in which no one is to be trusted, and that might even include the filmmakers themselves. The picture lists eight reenactment actors in its closing credits. It’s not unusual for a nonfiction feature to reenact some scenes for clarity or visual purposes (Errol Morris’ 1988 The Thin Blue Line was the film that popularized this approach), but, in almost every case, it’s obvious which sequences are real and which ones are reenacted. That’s not the case with The Penny Black, where, aside from some early bits involving a Roman stand-in, it’s difficult to ascertain which moments are reenacted. (And apparently I’m not the only one who sometimes couldn’t tell; curious, I glanced at a few reviews and noticed that some of the scribes believe Will’s childhood home movies are genuine while others believe them to be reenactments.) What’s more, Saunders injects himself into the proceedings more than once, and one wonders if we’re watching Will and Saunders basically playing Redford and Newman in The Sting. All this uncertainty adds to the mystery of the whole enterprise, a movie that triggers a lot of questions but leaves viewers to work out their own answers.
As for those missing stamps? Will maintains that he didn’t swipe and sell them. But, hey, how cool are the expensive Mini Cooper and the expensive yacht that are both suddenly in his possession?
(The Penny Black is available on Amazon Prime, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, and other streaming platforms.)