In its attempt to depict a wide cross-section of London society and to capture the spirit of the city at a particular period in time, Empire State inevitably feels a little dated in places. The fashions, hairstyles and interior design may prompt giggles from viewers today, but when you look beyond those surface details, Empire State is actually a fascinating picture, and one that has inexplicably slipped through the cracks in the two decades since its release. Directed by Nighthawks director Ron Peck, the film is an ambitious portrait of the changing face of London in the 1980's, following a group of characters driven solely by money and status, and exploring the shifting dynamic between the old and new powers in the capital.
The screenplay, by Peck and Mark Ayres, offers us no central protagonist, instead introducing a numbers of characters whose stories will run along parallel lines, and occasionally interweave. Key players in the drama include a low-grade crook with money troubles (Jamie Foreman), an investigative journalist (Lorcan Cranitch), a cynical rent boy (Lee Drysdale) and an American businessman (Martin Landau). Landau's character is in town to invest in the redevelopment of the docklands area, and one of the intriguing aspects of Empire State is the opportunity to see the derelict wasteland that now houses Canary Wharf and City Airport. All of the characters in Empire State are upwardly mobile and desperate to get their hands on whatever cash is up for grabs in Thatcher's Britain.
Aside from Martin Landau and one or two other familiar faces (including Ray McAnally as a shady nightclub boss), the cast in Empire State is filled with performers who were either total non-actors or young and inexperienced at the time. Some, like Elizabeth Hickling, betray their lack of experience (she was a model rather than an actress, and it shows), but the ensemble generally works well, with the charismatic Drysdale and fiery Foreman standing out. Peck does a fine job of juggling the disparate storylines and keeping the film on the move. Although there are slight question marks against some of the plotting and a few strands are left hanging, it remains absorbing viewing as he builds to a climactic showdown at the East End club from which the film takes its name.
Empire State comes to a close with an extended scene of violence orchestrated by two men who represent the opposing codes of the movie; one is an East End gangster from the old school, the other a flash yuppie with delusions of grandeur. Some viewers may balk at the Empire State's lurid tone and occasional swerves into camp territory, but there is much to admire here, including Tony Imi's vibrant cinematography and the excellent production design. Empire State is an adventurous and energetic piece of British filmmaking that also functions as a time capsule of this country in the late 1980's, and it deserves to be rediscovered.
Peck and Ayres provide a commentary for the film, but there's a bit too much describing what's on screen and little in the way of revelatory content. They do serve up a few interesting nuggets of information, however, and they have nothing but praise for Landau, particularly the way he worked with his non-professional co-stars to aid their performances. There's also one of the audio interviews Ron Peck conducted for research purposes, a couple of deleted scenes and some mildly worthwhile audition/screen test footage. The most interesting extra is a clip from Channel 4's Right to Reply that was aired after the station's screening of Empire State prompted numerous viewer complaints. In it, Peck patiently defends his film against a misguided viewer who seems shocked that the film wasn't fit for "family viewing," the poor lamb.
Empire State is released in a Blu-ray/DVD set on March 14th.
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