Tuesday, 29 March 2011

REVIEW: Boardwalk Empire

Created by Terence Winter
With: Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt, Kelly Macdonald.

With ‘Mad Men’ season 4 over and the new one still in the works, I felt in need of a good period drama TV series that was both intelligent and soulful. Enter ‘Boardwalk Empire’, a new HBO creation, much praised by the American and British critics alike, produced by Martin Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg and showered with Golden Globes. It premiered in America last September and is currently playing on Sky Atlantic in the UK.

The pilot episode was clearly designed to establish the show as the new cool kid on the block, something to be reckoned with. It is supposedly the most expensive TV pilot ever produced, which can be seen from the astounding attention to detail, the beautiful costumes and a sure-hand direction by Scorsese. The story is set in the year 1920 in Atlantic City, during the prohibition era and just before the emergence of the mythical criminal lords like Al Capone and his likes. The main character is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, based on the actual Enoch Johnson, an elected treasurer of the city and an underground criminal. He is played by Steve Buscemi, who, at first, seemed like a peculiar choice to play someone assertive and controlling, considering his many previous roles as a feeble sidekick. However, I now think that this was a perfect casting decision as Buscemi manages to give a certain mercurial quality to Nucky, which absolutely fits in with his nature: Nucky is someone who enjoys the lavish lifestyle his illegal actions (mainly bootlegging) provide him with but he also loves the power of a politician and basks in the glory of a supposed do-gooder. He is someone who is constantly torn by his opposing impulses and is a real chameleon.

Nucky is supported by his driver Jimmy, played by Michael Pitt, whose previous films include Bertolucci’s ‘The Dreamers” and a re-make of “Funny Games”. Jimmy suffers from post-traumatic disorder as he recently came back from WWI. His angelic features disguise his disturbed character and his love for brutality leads Nucky deeper into the criminal world.

This is no ordinary gangsters’ tale. Although there is a fair bit of violence and hedonism on show, there are also some interesting character observations and for me “Broadwalk Empire” is a wonderful keyhole into America’s past. The protagonists encounter some historical figures and ordinary folk, whose authenticity might be questioned by historians, but they look and sound like real people of flesh and blood, much more real than the sepia-coloured photos of the time. The set for the series was especially built, so the houses and the streets of old Atlanta look very believable. The city is, of course, an important character for the show – it used to be the Las Vegas of its day, with burlesque shows, illegal alcohol, nightclubs, gambling and loose women, which is very much interwoven into the series’ plot.

Overall, “Boardwalk Empire” is a curious and high-quality piece of work. There are some clear parallels with “The Sopranos”, which is a definite compliment. It is well written, well acted and directed and is a feast for the eyes. Every character seems to have a secret; nothing is what it seems to be. Do not be alarmed by the pilot’s dense plot, however – I think they just tried to put too much information into one episode in order to catch the viewers’ attention. If you feel like you’d like some procrastination that wouldn’t be totally meaningless, by all means, watch this. It doesn’t beat “Mad Men” for me, but then I am just shallow and would watch Jon Hamm instead of Steve Buscemi even if he were in a loo paper ad.

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