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Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season - Review

Boardwalk Empire

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

FROM the opening episode, impressively directed by Martin Scorsese, to its powerful finale, the first season of Boardwalk Empire was a powerhouse piece of television.

Richly defined, deliberately slow-burning, yet prone to sudden outbursts of graphic violence, this was a gangster epic that rewarded patient viewing with complex inter-woven stories inspired by Nelson Johnson’s non-fiction book Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City.

What’s more, aside from Scorsese’s presence as both first episode director and series executive producer, it also boasts the writing presence of Terence Winter, the award-winning writer of another famed TV classic, The Sopranos, to which Boardwalk can favourably compare.

Set in 1920, in the aftermath of the Great War and during the dawn of Prohibition, the series follows the fortunes of a select group of characters, most of whom are seeking to make their fortune from the sale of illegal alcohol.

Ruling them all is the town’s Treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a political fixer and backroom dealer who, together with his brother Elias (Shea Whigham), the town’s Sheriff, carves out a niche for himself as the man to see for any illegal alcohol.

And his reach extends beyond Atlantic City to the likes of Chicago, where deals are often brokered with other big names players on the Prohibition scene such as Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Big Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham).

As the series begins, Nucky’s former protégé and driver Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) returns home from the Great War, eager to get ahead and reclaim his rightful place in Nucky’s organisation.

But when Jimmy feels things aren’t moving quickly enough, he takes matters into his own hands, forming a deadly alliance with some associates of Nucky’s that set the Feds, led by Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) on his mentor’s tail.

Complicating matters further is Nucky’s burgeoning relationship with Margaret Schroeder, (Kelly Macdonald) a local woman in an abusive marriage whom he tries to help out.

Admittedly, the middle section of the first series required some patience as the complexity of the various relationships was given proper chance to air. Yet, by the time the final episodes gave rise to some shock revelations and even more shocking betrayals, the stage had been set for a truly powerful finale that was as inspired as it was moving.

Performance-wise, Boardwalk Empire was exemplary, with Buscemi rightly recognised with a Golden Globe for his masterful portrayal of the smooth operator Nucky at the centre of proceedings.

But Pitt also excelled as his protégé, Whigham offered an oddly sympathetic put-upon brother, Graham a suitably menacing Al Capone, Stuhlbarg a cool, calculated Rothstein and Shannon an enigmatic, mentally unhinged and frequently foreboding presence as Agent Van Alden.

Worthy of even greater mention, meanwhile, are Macdonald’s Margaret Schroeder, whose rise from shrinking violet to grand player in Nucky’s world, was strikingly achieved, and Jack Huston, as the horribly disfigured Richard Harrow, who also remained an enigmatic presence once introduced as Jimmy’s fiercest ally.

As expected, the production designs were suitably lavish, capturing the look of the era in sumptuous fashion, as well as the costumes and the violence that often surrounded the men who occupied such a consistently colourful world.

But above all else, Season 1 kept you gripped because of the strength of its characters, laying the groundwork for an arguably even better second series that continued to go from strength to strength. All told, Boardwalk Empire is epic TV that really shouldn’t be missed.

View season 1 photos

Certificate: 18
Episodes: 12
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: January 9, 2012