It’s been a couple of years since my last viewing of Martin Scorsese’s historical epic, Gangs of New York. It’s a movie I’ve seen several times since I first saw it in 2002 as my first ‘18’ rated movie at the cinema. It’s a film I’ve always had a lot of affection for. I found it strange then that on this particular viewing, the movie had lost a lot of its charm.
Loosely based on the 1928 book of the same name, Gangs of New York is a dirty and blood-soaked account of the various gangs which vied for control over New York City’s Five Points in the middle of the 19th Century. Focussing specifically on two characters, it takes historical context and real names, mixing them into a world of fact and fiction with some glorious set pieces and cinematic design. Having witnessed his father’s death at the hands of Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) as a young child, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio) comes back to the Five Points as an adult to reap revenge. He finds the Points much the same as he left it; a squalid and rat infested mismatch of languages and races, the very thing which Cutting despises about the area in which he is King.
Regular readers may well be aware of my love for the city of New York and I love its history even more than the vibrant city of today. I’m fascinated by photos and film of the city in its filthy past and this movie recreates it in all of its grimy detail. At times it’s difficult to believe how accurate the cave systems, large, disused factories and pig farms are but not that long ago, this is what the world’s greatest metropolis was really like. The film takes us back to an unrecognisable city, a city still awaiting its fate as one of the greatest on the planet. The set and costume design throughout the movie are highlights. The large and detailed sets, built on location at Rome’s Cinecittá were beautifully designed by Dante Ferretti and the five miles of streets, buildings and courtyards are some of my favourite in any film. The sets are detailed and filled with purifying bodies, livestock, rubbish, smoke and detritus. It’s a masterstroke of decaying beauty. The costume design is equally as impressive with oddly contrasting colours and patterns complemented by earthy coloured rags of the less fortunate characters. Bill ‘the Butcher’s’ vivid costumes are especially magnificent.
The plot of the movie is fairly basic at first glance, one of revenge and fight for freedom vs. the battle to keep the status quo. On deeper inspection, the movie is about the birth of modern America. In the background but never too far from the fore is the American Civil War, a war being fought hundreds of miles away but causing great tension amongst the divided populous of New York. More prominent in the script are the rights of immigrants and their shaping of the city and nation as a whole. New York, perhaps like no other city at the time or even since, was a melting pot of languages, nationalities and peoples. This created tensions between the new communities and those who were more established and this is one of the central themes of the movie. Race is also a constant plot point with talk of the Civil War and what men were really fighting for being juxtaposed against people’s dislike of blacks ‘taking’ low paid jobs from whites. This is also one of the issues which cause aggravation between the ‘Natives’ and Irish immigrants. It’s a wonderfully laid out story which touches nicely upon real historical characters and events.
On this most recent watch I found Scorsese’s direction uncharacteristically uneven. His usually inch perfect stylistic flair was displeasing to my eye and on the whole, I wasn’t a fan of the way it was shot. It isn’t something I’ve ever experienced with the film or indeed the director before and can only put it down to noticing more, being bored after so many watches or the fact that I’d just re-watched the near perfect Rear Window. Whatever the reason, the director’s style grated with me and I didn’t feel settled. This isn’t to say that the film isn’t great to look at because it undoubtedly is but there’s just something off with the way it looks. Despite this, there are some wonderfully composed scenes and shots and they work well with the score which is typically fitting. Like the era and depiction of people’s lives, I found the film messy.
On the acting front, there’s a real mix of near perfection and well, Cameron Diaz. Diaz plays an attractive pickpocket at the very centre of the story and although her character is well written, the actress struggles with the role. She does impress more than in many other films though. DiCaprio is strong although I found his Irish-American accent wavered somewhat. Accents on the whole were a weak area with the various dialects spewed with inconsistent accuracy. Daniel Day-Lewis steals the film with his inch perfect portrayal of Bill ‘the Butcher’. He chews though the scenery like a very hungry caterpillar and delivers juicy lines with aplomb. His “Whoopsie daisy” is a line that has remained with me for over a decade. The movie is littered with small roles for terrific actors and Jim Broadbent is one of many who produce. Brendan Gleeson is also worthy of mention for his portrayal of a hard man turned politician.
I’ll continue to go back to Gangs of New York and despite its flaws; it’s a sprawling epic with a love for history and a deep affection for its characters. There’s a lot going on and it doesn’t all work but you’ll finish the film with a rush of adrenalin, feeling as though you got value for money and that you’ve really visited mid 19th Century New York City.
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