Koch Vision presents
City of Vice (2007)
Surgeon: Didn't anyone think to check that she was dead?
Henry: Well, we hadn't. We were new to this.- Roger Hammond, Ian McDiarmid
Stars: Ian McDiarmid, Iain Glen
Other Stars: Francis Magee, Steve Speirs, ALice O'Connell, Sam Spruell
Director: Justin Hardy, Dan Reed
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, nudity, adult themes)
Run Time: 03h:56m:00s
Release Date: 2008-06-10
DVD ReviewIf you thought it impossible that there was anywhere left for the crime procedural genre to go, I welcome you to Georgian London at the birth of modern policing. 2008's City of Vice from BBC 4 uses as its launching point the embellished-but-true story of Tom Jones writer Henry Fielding and his blind brother John, magistrates in 1753 London determined to bring something resembling order to a largely lawless city. It's difficult to imagine, but at the time London had no police force at all. Private thief-takers (not unlike modern bounty hunters) could be employed by slighted individuals, and magistrates had some power to enforce their decisions through bailiffs. Parish constables were chosen by lot, but these were private individuals who were often no better than the criminals they were supposed to detain. An organized police force was seen as expensive, impractical, and despotic, and who cared, after all, if the peasants were roughing each other up? It was only as street crime began to encroach upon the upper classes that Parliament began to take notice. Henry would petition and cajole that body until given the funds that he desired to create his police: the Bow Street Runners, a force of just six men with which he hoped to break the backs of the organized gangs and thugs. That's where this series begins. It's a fascinating bit of history, and rather fun at its best.
Ian McDiarmid (Star Wars' evil Emperor) plays Henry, with an appropriate charm and gravity. That voice is immediately distinctive, but possessed of an oily quality that hints at sordid undercurrents. In Star Wars, McDiarmid is all charm on the surface with neatly subsumed nastiness. Here, he's rather the opposite: a noble fellow who can put on the faces that he needs in order to get by. In episode one, he plays the dignified gentleman in attempting to convince a hesitant MP that a police force in one of the world's largest, most crime-ridden cities might not be such a horrible idea. As he makes his case, he's forced to play nice with the mistress of a brothel offering up the favors of very young girls as a cure for all manner of social illnesses (the setting conveniently providing for bonus nudity). Fielding is well aware that playing pimp to homeless kids isn't nearly enough to get a high-class, money-making bordello shut down, but he also knows that debt is the true unforgivable sin (is it so different today?). It's a rough town, with novel and ambiguous concepts of law and order, and though it doesn't quite suit him, he's willing to play rough. His brother John (Iain Glen) is, and apparently was in real life, a brilliant magistrate and a perfectly capable lawman despite his blindness. He's also just a bit more upstanding than his brother. When one of their small band of runners is discovered to be spending just a bit too much time down at sodomites' way (and why wouldn't you?), it's John who is most appalled, while Henry, no stranger to scandal himself, seems a bit more content to live and let live. That particular episode, the third, is one of the best in this collection; while most of the episodes involve the brothers cleverly outwitting some nasty or other, with plots that often wallow in the London filth, that one starts with a murder and ends with a hanging, while the mystery in-between is sweet and tragic. The show doesn't always strike such a balance, with a darkness that often seems gratuitous, but the performances of McDiarmid and Glen tend to elevate the material.
The production values aren't spectacular, but the producers do a pretty solid of obscuring that fact. Scene transitions start out on a famous map of Georgian London, which pops into 3-D relief as the camera swoops through the drawn streets until we reach our destination. It's a clever way of establishing scale without having to spend a lot of money recreating the streets of an 18th century metropolis. Everything's set at night, which also helps, though it makes sense in the context of the show. The atmosphere that the producers are trying to create comes through, even if you can't always see it. What is onscreen is usually appropriately ugly, with appealling touches in period clothing and the like (the sodomites, and the madames, particularly, get some lovely costuming). It's unclear if the show will be returning for a second season (or 'series' in Brit parlance), but I reached the end of this set's scant five episodes hungry for more.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A
|Aspect Ratio||1.77:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: I found no transfer problems. The series as filmed is pretty dark, but the DVD seems to maintain contrast nicely. Neither objects nor people disappear into the night, as is the danger when transferring a show with so much black. It's not a stunningly visual show, but it comes across adequately.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The audio quality is merely adequate, but I suspect that has more to do with the budgetary limitations of the series than anything inherent to the DVD. There's nothing here that will blow you out of your chair, but there are no distractions, either.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Packaging: Keep Case
Extras Review: The only extra is The Making of Vice, a standard-issue featurette briefly touching on several aspects of the production. There are some neat little bits about the history, the sets, and the character creation, but at just under 15 minutes, there's no great amount of detail.
Extras Grade: B-
Final CommentsThough it took me a while to warm to it, City of Vice became something of an addiction through the course of the five episode season. The show's period setting is both fascinating and raunchy. It sometimes plays as a gratuitously violent police procedural set in a time before police, but at its best transcends the conventions of that genre and its own attempts at grittiness. Leads McDiarmid and Glen carry things nicely, and add just the right amount of class. It'll be a bit dark for some tastes, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Ross Johnson 2008-06-23