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Fortune shines on Clive Owen

His turn as a con man adds to the appeal of the so very British 'Chancer.'

January 27, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

THERE is really only one reason Americans will buy the DVD of the second season of the British drama "Chancer," due Tuesday -- and that reason is Clive Owen. There he is on the cover, impossibly young, impossibly handsome, doing that rakish sideways stare into the camera. And this isn't a bit of false advertising either; "Chancer," made in the early '90s, was Owen's breakout role in Britain. Playing Derek Love, alias Stephen Crane, a roguish con man, or "chancer," he is tough and tender, street smart and vulnerable, a prologue, in other words, to his character in the film "Croupier," which would bring him to the sigh-heaving attention of the American audience.

But if you buy the second part of the series, "Chancer: Series 2" (Acorn Media, $39.99), for Owen, you should watch it as a window on your possible future. As the writers strike continues, networks are casting their eyes toward Canadian and British television as a possible way to fill the void, and "Chancer" is about as British as it gets.

Part con drama, part soap opera, with sets straight out of "Brideshead Revisited" and a keyboard-heavy score possibly lifted from "Dark Shadows," "Chancer: Series 2" follows the fortunes of Mr. Crane after he has served the prison term he was sentenced to in Series 1. Intent on mending things with his lover, Joanna (Susannah Harker), who has secretly had his baby, Crane quickly becomes at tragic odds with her psycho father (Peter Vaughan) while trying to help his friend Piers (Simon Shepherd) save his decaying manor home from ruin.

Making matters more complicated is old friend Jimmy (Leslie Phillips), a wheeler-dealer from Crane's past, and a sly vixen named Anna (Louise Lombard), who gets involved in everything for reasons of her own.

Harker you will remember as the lovely and mild Jane in the famous BBC "Pride and Prejudice," while Vaughan and Phillips give the cast the best old-Brit-actor pedigree this side of the "Harry Potter" franchise. Vaughan's been in pretty much every movie made since "The 39 Steps" (OK, the 1959 remake) -- you will certainly recognize him from his role as Anthony Hopkins' father in "The Remains of the Day" -- and Phillips practically invented the plummy roue. In "Chancer," he is rolling in gravy, calling everyone "poppet" and "dear heart" with a straight face and miraculously saying things like "The rectangular wooden apparatus in the wall is called a door" or "Whatever happened to that delightful young woman you used to court" and making them sound like actual conversation.

Really, "Chancer" is worth watching just for him, he is so very delightfully British, you know.

Still, it's a strange amalgamation -- Vaughan's character really is a murderous thug, Crane really is a street-smart chancer hatching schemes that would make the "Ocean's Eleven" boys proud. But, meanwhile, there's the ghost of Jo whispering in his ear and a custody battle taking place, not to mention the struggle to save the moldering pile of Winterly, which comes complete with secret priest holes.

Add to that leaden British sky, some pointed political humor and lots of brandy-swilling scenes 'round the crackling manor fire, and it's hard to know exactly what you've got. Except Clive Owen, after all.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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