ONE summer’s evening in 1973, John Paul Getty’s 16-year-old grandson, Paul, was snatched from the streets of Rome. His kidnappers must have thought they had hit the jackpot. Getty Sr was, at the time, the wealthiest man in the world, so there was no doubt that he could pay the $17m ransom. What the kidnappers hadn’t considered was that he might not want to. Getty announced to the press that he wouldn’t hand over a penny in exchange for his scion, because that would only prompt further abductions. Besides, he didn’t become a billionaire by giving cash to anyone who asked for it.

Forty-five years later, the weird, sad story of the Getty kidnapping is in the news again, with two new dramatisations. First there is “All the Money in the World”, directed by Ridley Scott and adapted from John Pearson’s book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty”. Next there is a ten-part television series, “Trust”, directed by Danny Boyle, written by Simon Beaufoy, and due to premiere on FX later this month. Maybe it’s a coincidence. But maybe both projects are coming out now because there are so many super-rich tycoons in the news and in power. Any insight into how such people think could be classed as a public service.

“All the Money in the World” received an unexpected publicity boost in November when Kevin Spacey, who was playing Getty, was removed from the project amid allegations of sexual assault and harassment. With “Trust” hot on its heels, the film’s producers couldn’t afford to push back the release date, but Mr Scott decided that there was no need: in the six weeks before “All the Money in the World” was due to come out, he said, he could reshoot every one of Mr Spacey’s scenes, with Christopher Plummer taking his place.

It is unlikely that anyone else would have attempted such an ambitious repair job, but Mr Scott has experience in this area: when Oliver Reed died during the filming of “Gladiator”, the director chopped and changed the scenes he had already shot so that the arc of Mr Reed’s character would remain intact. In “All the Money in the World”, he pulls off an even more extraordinary feat. Mr Plummer slots into the finished film so seamlessly, and plays a major role with such casual authority, that you would never guess that he wasn’t in it all along. A testament to how quickly and efficiently both the 80-year-old Mr Scott and the 88-year-old Mr Plummer work, their magic trick probably merits some kind of Outstanding Technical Achievement award. But whether the film deserves any other awards is questionable.

“All the Money in the World” is a handsome, wide-ranging but not very involving drama. After the laidback Paul (Charlie Plummer, not a relation of Christopher) is spirited away to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere by a grimy Italian crook (Romain Duris) and his gang, it’s up to the boy’s divorced mother Abigail (Michelle Williams) to push for his release, with the help of Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a cocky ex-spy who is employed as a fixer by Getty. Ms Williams is superb as a desperate woman who knows that she has to stay composed and polite if she is to have any chance of getting through to her former father-in-law. But the episodic narrative, which spans several months, doesn’t have the suspense or urgency you would expect from a hostage thriller in which lives and body parts are at stake. Essentially, both the kidnappers and the Gettys wait around for their opponents to crack, so the film doesn’t pick up speed (despite some action set pieces and confrontations which have obviously been invented by the screenwriter).

The good news for the makers of “Trust” is that, at the end of “All The Money in the World”, many viewers will feel that a television series—particularly a television series helmed by Mr Boyle—might have been better suited to the events depicted. Mr Scott’s film spreads itself thinly: its characters don’t have enough to do or say. At the same time, it could have done with the feverish energy which zings through Mr Boyle’s work. 

What the film has in its favour is its sly commentary on the mindset required to amass and to hang onto all the money in the world. It emphasises Getty’s niggling insecurity: his feeling that his riches won’t mean anything unless they keep growing. It also examines how his wealth isolates him, pushing him away from people he can’t rely on and towards objects he can buy and possess. He fills his vast Tudor manor with art and antiquities—much like Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”—and yet he enjoys dictating curt rebuffs to the begging letters he receives, and he puts a phone booth in his mansion so that houseguests will have to pay for their own calls.

Mr Plummer plays the character with beautiful assurance. His Getty is convinced that he is the reincarnation of a Roman emperor, but he doesn’t strut around imperiously. Rather, he is a genial if crotchety fellow, so confident of his genius that he doesn’t have to shout about it. You can’t quite forget Mr Spacey while you’re watching the film, but you certainly don’t miss him.