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DVD Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire: Season 1’

★★★★☆

Opening with an exhilarating pilot directed by none other than gangster movie master Martin Scorsese, the first season of HBO’s superb period crime series Boardwalk Empire (2010) hits DVD and Blu-ray this week as the second season begins airing in the UK on Sky Atlantic. Charting the birth of organised crime, the series chronicles the life and times of Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi), an Atlantic City treasurer during the Prohibition era whose double role as politician and bootlegger makes him the most powerful man on the Boardwalk. As the first season begins, Thompson has built around himself a small army of loyal followers willing to break the law and kill in order to sustain their decadent lives.

Chief among these are Nucky’s brother and sheriff Elias ‘Eli’ Thompson (Shea Whigham) and returning First World War veteran James ‘Jimmy’ Darmody (Michael Pitt), an impetuous, ambitious right-hand man hell-bent on making a name for himself, even when it jeopardises the happiness of his young family. As Prohibition descends upon Atlantic City, a hijacked whiskey shipment and interconnected woodland massacre threatens to dismantle Nucky’s empire, with vultures such as Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the unhinged, fanatical FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) ready and waiting to bury Thompson. From the pen of The Sopranos scribe Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire is yet another clear example of just how much television has bridged the gap with cinema.

Much like Todd Haynes’ mesmerising five-part mini-series Mildred Pierce (2011) (another HBO production), Boardwalk Empire perfectly captures the mood of its depicted era, standing up to even the most extreme scrutiny. Atlantic City truly takes on the form of a character in its own right, the ideal seat of debauchery and decadence from which Nucky can plot his own expansion, even setting his sights as far as Washington and the presidential elections. Despite previous typecasting in a number of maniacal roles, Buscemi excels as the morally ambiguous, ruthless, yet strangely endearing Nucky, a true visionary in more ways than one. More than happy to flout every law going as long as it keeps Prohibition-era Atlantic City “as wet as a mermaid’s twat”, Thompson is also a keen advocate of civil rights for African-Americans and women – as long as they use their vote to keep him in office.

Alongside Buscemi, the supporting cast of Pitt, Shannon, Whigham and Stuhlbarg all give heavyweight performances, whilst notable mentions should also go to British stars Kelly Macdonald – as humble Irish immigrant turned treasurer’s squeeze Margaret Schroeder – and Stephen Graham as a young Al Capone working the mean streets of 1930s Chicago. The well-used slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO” has perhaps never been so evident as with Boardwalk Empire – not only the finest example of televisual drama since The Wire, but a hugely ambitious, extremely rewarding gangster epic that transcends its very medium.

Daniel Green