Friday, 14 August 2015

Empire State (1987)

Ron Peck and Mark Ayres took a total of five years to develop their project about the self serving aggression they had come to notice in the British character across the 1980s. That project was this film, Empire State - a neon lit nihilistic nightmare depiction of London, and a glitzy East End nightclub, across 24 hours. When it was broadcast by Channel 4 in October 1989 it was met with a barrage of complaints from viewers who felt that the end result was deeply offensive, singling out the  language and violence as being too excessive.

It's a deeply ambitious film from director Peck, and co-writer Ayres which seeks to address several then contemporary issues of London, including its Thatcherite excess, the desperation of the have-not's in society, the gay scene and the rent boy subculture, and the old East End gangland set. The intention seems to be to take the marker laid down by John MacKenzie in 1979's The Long Good Friday of the gangster genre in a sociopolitical context, and to develop it and see where it has now taken us some eight years into Thatcher's premiership. It's a stylised piece certainly, but despite the characters and stories being writ large, I feel that there's enough grain of truth within them to make it feel just as valid about the time it was made as the much praised Wall Street, which is now admittedly looking a bit rough around the edges.

The film boasts a fragmented plot structure, introducing us to several characters and their individual stories which ultimately converge only in the key final scenes set in the titular den of inequity that is the Empire State itself. Some of these stories are of course better and more involving than others, but perhaps the best statement on the changing tide which swept through the country at the time is the controversial Docklands development, which is shown to become the centrepiece of conflict between Frank (Ray McAnally) and Paul (Ian Sears). The former is a garrulous, ageing old-style East End gangster, whilst the latter is his former protege who has risen from his rent boy beginnings and has enough vision to attract important new money into the area from both the yuppies of West London and a rich investor from America. Veteran Hollywood star Martin Landau plays the American money, who we see enjoying it rough "but not too rough" with a quick talking cockney hustler  Johnny (Lee Drysdale) who dreams one day of making it in New York.  Meanwhile hanging on the fringes of the tale is Danny (Jamie Foreman) a hapless henpecked guy in over his head with Elizabeth Hickling's no good and greedy club hostess Cheryl. Unable to provide for their future together, he takes a very dangerous and bloody path indeed. 

Full of familiar faces who went on to bigger things (Foreman, Gary Webster, Ronan Vibert, Sadie Frost, Glen Murphy, Perry Fenwick and Lorcan Cranitch) and inexperienced actors who - perhaps rightly going on evidence here - did not (tragically Jason Hogenson who plays teenager Pete, down from Newcastle to search for his friend who worked at the club and is now presumed dead, is now in real life homeless after a string of custodial sentences and a diagnosis of schizophrenia) Empire State may be something of a flawed experiment but it's a great social document on Thatcherism and the 1980s and perhaps an overlooked example of LGBT British cinema from that period.

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