In Atlantic City in the 1920s when Prohibition was introduced and alcohol became illegal, everybody partied.
Black balloons fell from the ceiling, the band struck up a tune, couples danced and the champagne flowed. At least they did at the swish party attended by county treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi).
Nucky was a real life character in Atlantic City who rose to power as one of the city’s leaders who became a racketeer running bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. HBO’s new drama series is a fictionalised version inspired by actual events in a book by writer Nelson Johnson. It’s a wonderful backdrop to themes of corruption, vice and larger-than-life characters.
This is a project dripping in gravitas. In addition to character actor Buscemi in a lead TV role, the screenplay is by Sopranos writer Terence Winter. It has none other than Martin Scorsese directing its first episode. Mark Wahlberg is also a producer.
Nucky is a man of contradictions. Outwardly he condemns alcohol to the Women’s Temperance League while secretly comandeering backroom deals of booze smuggled and sold at bloated prices, all thriving under the federal law of Prohibition. With wine, women and violence, he ran Atlantic City’s own underbelly, becoming rich through organised crime. Buscemi was born to play this role, a smiling assassin of sorts. No wonder he won a Golden Globe for his efforts.
The other key characters in the opening episode include Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) Nucky’s former protégé, who is tempted to work for the Feds, and Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald) a wife who is beaten by her husband and turns to Nucky for help. In a city of liars, cheats and fornicators, she serves as the symbol of virtue. Pitt as the wide-eyed and ambitious Darmody is like a young Leonardo di Caprio in The Departed -no surprise given the director. Darmody will also meet an equally young Al Capone (Stephen Graham).
Helping to make this believable is the fact that there is almost no star-casting amongst the remaining principal and supporting players (although The Wire’s Michael Kenneth Williams and an unrecognisable Dabney Coleman have roles).
But the most striking aspects of Boardwalk Empire are the production values. The Art Direction, Costume and Cinematography are outstanding. There are lavish sets that transport you back to a romantic era. Attention to detail is exceptional. The effect is simply sumptuous.
Similarly, Scorsese’s use of period music hits the right tone. There’s nothing quite like hearing a 20’s ditty warbling on an old gramophone while someone is being bludgeoned to death.
Mad Men has clearly made period dramas fashionable again and it couldn’t have a better nod than one from Boardwalk Empire. Expect to hear a lot more about this one.
Boardwalk Empire premieres 8:30pm Sunday March 27th on Showtime.