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Boardwalk Empire - First episode reviewed

Boardwalk Empire

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

DUSTIN Hoffman has, for weeks, been extolling the virtue of great storytelling as he lends his mesmerising voice and welcome face to the promotions for Sky TV’s new Atlantic channel.

Now that Sky Atlantic is finally upon us, you have to admit he has a point. At a time when TV seems over-populated by soap opera melodrama or reality TV, you have to look elsewhere for the very finest drama and this new channel has clearly set itself up as THE definitive place to go.

As such, its choice of opening programme was a clear statement of intent: the Golden Globe winning gangster drama Boardwalk Empire.

Written by Terence Winter, of The Sopranos fame, and directed by Martin Scorsese, the show aims to provide an epic insight into the rise of organised crime in Prohibition-era Atlantic City.

It stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson, a corrupt county treasurer who aims to use the alcohol ban to further his own profit-making enterprises (which extend to gambling and, when time permits, having people killed).

But it’s populated by colourful characters, from Stephen Graham’s Al Capone to Michael Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein, as well as Michael Pitt’s impetuous war veteran James ‘Jimmy’ Darmody, Kelly Macdonald’s abused mother Margaret and Michael Shannon’s no-nonsense Agent Nelson Van Alden.

All combined to make the first 90 minutes of this 12-part endeavour a deeply impressive affair… and one that launched the Sky Atlantic channel in exemplary fashion.

There are few better choices to direct a sweeping gangster epic than Scorsese, however, and his rich cinematic eye, coupled with his reverential genre knowledge, was plain for all to see from the opening moments.

The first shot, for instance, saw the captain of a boat awaiting several smaller vessels to appear from out of the mist – a nod to the opening of his own recent Shutter Island perhaps? While the subsequent hijacking that took place in the woods may also have been a tip of the hat to Sopranos territory, and in particular an episode that Buscemi had directed.

The grand, blood-soaked finale, meanwhile, saw a couple of brutal killings played out to an emotive piece of music in a clear homage to the Godfather series.
But Scorsese still managed to imbue proceedings with his own style, too, from the sweeping shots of Atlantic City and its various neon-lit night-time establishments (a la Goodfellas) to the fast-talking dealings and hot-headed inclinations of several of its proponents.

Admittedly, it took time to really find its narrative thrust (given the plethora of characters that needed introducing) but come the final half an hour you couldn’t fail to be anything other than gripped.

Buscemi has already established himself as wily, charismatic leading man – a corrupt individual who would appear to be ready to sell just about anyone down the river for the right price, who belatedly showed compassion (to Macdonald’s mother) and even regret (at his decision making), or even paternal instincts in his dealings with Pitt’s Jimmy.

Pitt, meanwhile, combines the brash energy of a young man on the climb with the haunted look of a war veteran who has already seen and done too much. And is it any coincidence that in appearance he boasts plenty of similarities with Scorsese’s leading man of choice, Leonardo Di Caprio?

Macdonald has yet to grow into her role of the victimised Margaret, while Shannon’s agent is biding his time on the sidelines. But both would appear to be intriguing characters in waiting.

Graham, meanwhile, revelled in his role as the charismatic but violent Capone, while Stuhlbarg (who recently shone in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man) was a suitably calculated Rothstein, whose calm temperament and icy business demeanour was nicely offset by the hot-headed impetuousness of Vincent Piazza’s Lucky Luciano.

As with much of Scorsese’s work, the violence was shocking when it did arrive but in keeping with the time and those who dealt it. Winter’s script, meanwhile, was as complex and occasionally witty as we’ve come to expect… but never more so than during a fantastic meeting of crime bosses at which the various players really got to introduce themselves.

Much has been made in early US reviews that the opening episode of Boardwalk Empire fell short of the quality of The Sopranos, while still being strong in its own right. And while this would appear to be a legitimate appraisal, it still says something for the overall quality of this HBO drama that it still stands head and shoulders above most shows.

And with the promise of even better to come, you can’t help but feel we’re about to be spoiled rotten by this already fantastic new show. Congrats, too, to Sky Atlantic for ensuring that its much heralded launch was as stylish and high quality as we’d come to hope.

Boardwalk Empire aired on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday, February 1, at 9pm and continues on Wednesday at the same time. Go to Sky Channel 108 for more information.

  1. Best programme on TV, period! It just keeps getting better, mark my words.

    Jasmin    Feb 2    #