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UK Film Review: Public Enemies

Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Directed by: Michael Mann

Public Enemies is polished movie Depression, but it is also authentic. Graham Thompson, the Chicago based hat maker who produced 75 custom hats for the movie (fedoras mainly, boaters and tribys) concurs that they ‘got it right’.

Costume designer Colleen Atwood’s painstaking recreations of heavy wool pinstriped suits and silken evening dresses are certainly all up there on screen. Also the meticulous way the outfits are worn: just enough shirt cuff protruding from the suit jacket, hats cocked at just that perfect angle, coats ringed with fur and not swamped by it. These outfits set an atmospheric tone for the viewer. This is how Chicago looked during its crime ridden misery of the 1930s; this is how Chicago looked on an $80 million budget. It’s real, but movie real.

John Dillinger’s (Johnny Depp) clothes actually become integrated into the plot. The discovery of a receipt from his hastily purchased overcoat kicks off Agent Purvis’ (Christian Bale) manhunt against him. Dillinger admits to Billie (Marion Cotillard) early on in their short-lived relationship that he ‘likes good clothes’. How ironic then that something he coveted should form the foundation of his downfall.

This is not Dillinger’s life story; it is not even always about him. Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham) gets to lead nearly as many gunfight set pieces and is sometimes the more interesting character, at least initially. Stephen Lang too as a grizzled Texas Ranger steals every big moment from Bale. Though it seems like this was the intention – to challenge audience expectation.

What director Michael Mann has achieved with Public Enemies is an HD video vivid recreation of a distorted and now largely obsolete gangster mythology. Point of fact, the picture quality is so grainy and dripping with validity that the felt on Purvis’ hat or the crepe of Billie’s dress actually become part of the scenery. Mann is not just telling a story, he is inviting you into the frame to be part of it.

While Depp may be on cruise control, Cottillard underused and Bale underwritten, Public Enemies is far more hit than miss. Surprising at times (Purvis doesn’t even get to shoot Dillinger), predicable at others (the loud Heat-alike shoot outs), Mann has worked hard to make this movie different from the Identikit biopic norm.

Public Enemies is a boisterous, blazing facade of rose-tinted Hollywood nostalgia, and it wears it well.

Further reading:

Dillinger’s South Side hat man – Chicago Sun Times

© 2009 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.