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Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Godfather Antidote


AND DON'T BE PROMOTING SCORSESE TO ME
. It's my wife's fault. Another dark miniseries created by dark talents from Dublin. It's called The Take, four parts and 180 minutes worth of organized crime, London style. Don't even know how you'll find it. We got it via Comcast On-demand as part of our bundled Encore subscription. Doesn't seem to be on Netflix at the moment either.

Why bother looking for it? After the first two episodes, I'd have said don't bother. But my wife was intrigued because the acting is terrific, the story is dark dark dark the way she likes it, and there was one element of suspense she -- to be honest, WE -- had to see resolved. So we returned over my grumbling, disingenuous objections to see the last two episodes too. Now I can report.

I've written at length about my detestation of my generation's unbecoming fascination with The Godfather. I've even called it the male counterpart of women's idiotic obsession with Gone With the Wind. That's how much I hate the cultural phenomenon of American movie makers and TV producers who glamorize mafia mores and personalities. It took me a while, because I can be slow on the uptake, to realize that The Take is a nightmare mirror of the grand poobah of mafia sagas.

The Take is its own original version of essentially the same archetypes in a somewhat different story arc. There's an aging Godfather (Brando stand-in), his hot-headed protege (Sonny stand-in), his more talented but reluctant heir (Michael stand-in), and assorted peripheral women who hint at the roles played by Diane Keaton and Talia Shire. Even Fredo is represented, as the disturbing weakness that prevents the Michael character from acting boldly enough until way late in the day. Unless the Godfather's kid sister is an even closer match.

But from first to last there is no glamor of any kind. The Godfather, played by Brian Cox, is a convict living in a penitentiary. The setting of the action is East London. No one is living palatially. It's all grubby, grungy, and low class in a way only the worst of Brits can sink to. The central character isn't Michael at all, but Sonny. Sonny the way he would have been if Mario Puzo hadn't secretly admired his fire, violence, and ruthlessness. His name here is Freddie, played by Tom Hardy of Lawless and Dark Knight Rising fame, and he is an animal. I take that back. Never met an animal as despicable as Freddie. He's a murderer, a sexual satyr and rapist, a coke head, a treacherous, choleric liar, and someone you desperately want to see dead no more than halfway through Episode 1. By the end of Episode 2, you feel this feeling so intensely that you're willing to put up with 90 more minutes of pure ugliness just to achieve that objective.

Ugliness. That's the key. In The Godfather trilogy and the Sopranos TV series, there is the conceit that something like normal life can coexist with the criminal "business" of mafia malefactors, glossed by a patina of Italian charm and comfort foods. Not here. Everything, all relationships, family members (including children), and private character propensities are infected, fatally, by what is expressly denoted in the script as the "cancer" of evil.

There are murders aplenty but they are not picturesque or grandly cinematic.  They are just ugly and nearly impossible to watch.  There are many one-liners, but they're not quotable so much as horrifying in their brutality and presentiments of violence. The false bonhomie of mobsters who are setting up their peers for impending mayhem is not cool or stylized here; it is so uniform and transparent, so repetitiously predictable, that every time someone flashes a friendly smile, you get ready for the savagery to follow. The only surprise is when it doesn't. That's the job of the next scene. One of these 'nexts' is almost endlessly postponed, but...

I won't spill the ending. I won't pretend that it's actually fun to watch, though Tom Hardy and Brian Cox are mesmerizing. You can't take your eyes off them when they are onscreen, and they are such powerful presences that they're always in every scene, whether they're on camera or not. All four episodes are exceptionally powerful in this way -- and consequently exhausting. But I will recommend viewing this miniseries if you have ever been even momentarily seduced by the false romance of mafia movies. The Take is an exposé of the black heart of pure viciousness and the pain it spreads in every direction when it is unleashed on the world.

There IS some catharsis in the ending. That's what drama is supposed to provide. In that respect, mission accomplished.

I forgave my wife for inducing me to watch. Now she just has to forgive herself. I feel she can manage it.

P. S. I know some commenter will reference Scarface, but that's a dead end too. Tom Hardy embodies some of Pacino's swagger, but he plays much closer to the bone. He may be larger than life, but he's not self-consciously larger than the movie. No mountain of cocaine, no loud lapels and even louder movie star last stand on a balcony against the glittering backdrop of Miami. Enough said.







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