Fight club: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Atticus in Pompeii.
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All you need is lava: Sparks fly in Paul W S Anderson's Pompeii

The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is clearly influenced by Titanic, but better described as Gladiator with a topping of molten lava.

Tragedy plus time equals disaster movie, as the saying almost goes. The more time, the better, if you’re going to transplant fictional characters into real situations. James Cameron’s Titanic may look like passable entertainment in 200 years but, for now, that film’s implicit suggestion that the ship went down because two young lovers dared to cross the class divide seems tasteless at best. Pompeii, shot in 3D, has the balance right. As it is set in a-long-time-ago AD, it doesn’t breach propriety when imagining the doomed souls who perished as the city was transformed into the world’s largest ashtray. The love story between a slave and a noblewoman is influenced by Titanic but the film could also be described as Gladiator served with a topping of molten lava.

As a child in Britannia, Milo (played as an adult by Kit Harington) sees his mother slain by a vicious Roman leader. No sword-and-sandals hero ever got anywhere without first witnessing the death of a parent and vowing revenge – just ask Conan. Milo is put into slavery and becomes a gladiator with a formidable fighting style and an even more formidable bounce to his ringlets. (I’m betting he uses Miss Jessie’s Pillow Soft Curls.) His owners recognise his special aptitudes for combat and for keeping his stubble the same length at all times. He is transported from Londinium, also known as the Land of Too Few Extras, to the arenas of Pompeii, where vast and unconvincing CGI vistas extend in every direction. His black suede jerkin and the leather bootlaces he wears around his neck suggest that he came to Italy via Camden Market.

In Pompeii, Milo is pitted against the towering African slave Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who has the uncanny ability to sound like he is being dubbed at all times. The two adversaries defy their masters and become allies, clapping each other on the back and swapping tips.

“Your right arm is stronger than your left,” says Atticus.

“You should learn to thrust when you shift your weight,” replies Milo. Boys, please. Get a cubiculum.

Milo also comes to the attention of Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the city’s ruler, Severus (Jared Harris), and for a few scenes they engage in some light flirtatious simpering: catch one another’s eye, look down coyly, look up again, bite lip. It seems as if it’ll be a fine romance, or at least a contest to see which of them can show the greatest amount of thigh. Unfortunately, Cassia is desired by the tyrant Corvus (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who was a total A-hole to her during her gap year in Rome. More pressingly, Corvus turns out to be the brute who killed Milo’s mother. Hell’s bells! Or, as Severus would say: “Juno’s tit!”

Corvus doesn’t take kindly to Cassia galloping across the countryside bareback with a slave and concocts various punishments, stripping Milo to the waist and doling out 15 of the finest homoerotic lashes.

“I could have prevented that,” gasps Cassia. “What was I thinking?”

“He made you feel alive,” whispers her handmaiden Ariadne (Jessica Lucas), angling shamelessly to write an advice column in one of the Sunday supplements.

Every now and then, there are some violent tremors and an urn falls off a shelf. “It is the mountain,” observes Atticus. “It rumbles from time to time.” Finally, Mount Vesuvius erupts in a fury, possibly in response to the dialogue it has been forced to hear, and all of Pompeii resembles an explosion in a crematorium. A tsunami hits the city, the streets are flooded and, in one of the most unexpected causes of death in history, hundreds of pedestrians are killed by a longship whooshing down Main Street.

It would be hard to begrudge a movie in which Atticus invents the Black Power salute moments before being pelted fatally with magma, while Corvus’s response to being double-crossed by Cassia is to yell: “You bitch!” With scenes such as those, Pompeii has some claim on being the greatest lava story of the year.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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