Martin Scorsese has something of a reputation as a film maker who does movies about criminals in New York, but Gangs of New York is not your usual Scorsese flick. It’s a historical drama, set mainly during the years of the Civil War, which draws much of its material from a book of the same name published in 1927. Scorsese’s work is usually notable for the richness and authenticity of its language, delivered in dialects with which both director and actors are intimately acquainted, and while a great deal of attention was clearly given to the spoken vernacular, the effect is very different. A good point of comparison, for me, is Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, where the language sits in the mouths of the characters as though it was made there, and which is set at around the same time (albeit in a different country). By contrast, Gangs of New York feels stagey and melodramatic, not just for this reason, but also because of the heavily contrived set-piece scenes around which the drama revolves, and its central, power-fantasy revenge plot. However, credit is due for some very serviceable dialogue. Dialects are drawn from various parts of the British Isles, with out-and-out New York voices used only when appropriate, as with Daniel Day-Lewis’s Nativist gang boss. The slang used by criminal characters, which was presumably drawn from historical research, has considerable overlap with eighteenth century London thieves’ cant, which i’ve been researching for a fiction project: ‘ken’ is used for ‘gaff’ (or ‘joint’, if you’re American), ‘mort’ for ‘young woman’, ‘lay’ for ‘plan’, ‘scheme’, or ‘situation’, among other examples. This gives the film something of a sense of historical immersion, which might otherwise be completely lacking, given its theatrical set design and its lack of attention to the texture and detail of everyday life.
The film is set during an era of rapid immigration from Ireland, with the bulk of the action taking place around ten years after the Great Famine—it is worth noting that Irish emigration continued to increase at roughly the same rate during and after the Famine as before it, but it is doubtless the case that it would have slowed considerably without it. This wave of immigration brought the United States its first of several significant immigrant communities of Catholic faith, and produced a backlash among those descended from historical immigrants of largely English Protestant origin. The Irish were characterised as dirty, disease-ridden, unpatriotic, and prone to criminality, while an atavistic hatred for their religion had been inherited from the conflicts that drove Puritans to the New World centuries before. This led to the rise of a ‘Nativist’ movement (yes, the irony was entirely lost on its members) which organised itself in secret societies and street gangs. Against this background, and contributing a great deal of heat to discourses of patriotism and loyalty, the United States was gripped by the Civil War, still its bloodiest and most devastating conflict. Irish immigrants were in many cases drafted straight off the ships that brought them to New York and sent off to die in far-flung parts of a country with which they were barely acquainted. The resulting resentments were played out in conflicts within the criminal subcultures of the city (the main theme of this film), in a changing political landscape as the Irish vote became more organised, and sadly in a rise of anti-Black sentiment within the Irish community, large parts of which blamed Blacks for their involvement in a war whose causes they could barely fathom. This resentment of the war led to the Draft Riots of 1863, which remain the largest and most violent civil disturbances in American history, and which rage through the denouement of Gangs of New York.
There is some very fine acting in this film, some good writing, and a great deal of fascinating historical incident. The time in which it is set is an important one, and one about which little is usually recalled other than the few big-ticket events like the Great Famine and the Civil War. There is an intention, explicitly stated at the end of the film, to remember and commemorate the lives that were lived in this turbulent period. However, there is no character in the film that appears to be more than the sum of its parts, even given the great conviction brought to their performances by Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and the extremely strong supporting cast. These are all figures with things to do, as set out in the script, and little sense that they might have lives away from the camera, inner or outer. The complex web of historical themes which inform the story never really emerges with any clarity, and the central plot arc is such a commonplace one that it can’t really stand on its own without some truly interesting characters to engage the audience. This is the difference, I guess, between a film-maker representing a world he knows from the inside, and one that he’s having to construct from historical materials: Scorsese is a true master of the former, but clearly hasn’t quite mastered the very different skill-set required to nail the latter approach.