Sunday, August 14, 2016

August's Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman -- PEAKY BLINDERS 3: The Double Triple Cross

This not so under-the-radar cult series -- now available for streaming via Netflix -- is a bouquet to British screenwriter Steven Knight's heritage and a bite out of Britain's 20th century criminal past -- the gangs of Birmingham in the 1920's. Both of Knight's parents descend from Birmingham Peaky Blinders gang culture, a group notorious for tucking razor blades into their caps for cutting victims. The story of the Peakies resonates with our Godfather & Boardwalk Empire epics but is colored with its  iconic Brummy aesthetic; Birmingham was the clanging, banging industrial seat of Britain's metal works.

Literature from across the pond evolved from ancient stories of knights, chivalry, and wars of thrones; eras were defined by kings and queens. British drama has matured into tales of the aristocracy and politics; its long lines of family gangs & rivalries have simply not been written about.

In an interview with BBC History Magazine, Knight (above) contrasts the narrative of America by its settlers as a romance of the promised land; Europe was old and bad -- America the stuff of myth. The settling of the American West and the stories of laborers, cowboys and industrialization turned the mundane into our American mythology.

Knight's English version of the American gangster tale starts with hero Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy, in high strung but authoritative command of the Peaky universe) riding into his Brum slum (Birmingham) on a horse. It is the start of any American western and Knight used the reference on purpose, although Tommy Shelby's personal wild west derives from his gypsy ties to the land of his dead mother. (Knight uncovered the tidbit of Charlie Chaplin's birth on the Black Patch, Smethwick, near Birmingham, a gypsy camp that figures in Peaky Blinders.) From the stories passed down to Knight, the filmmaker wove tales and images together that stay imprinted on the viewer's mind as they did on his, such as that of a group of men huddled over a plain wooden table drinking beer out of jam jars, fogged in booze and smoke -- impeccably dressed bookies handling piles of money when no one else had any.

Luckily an ingenious story-teller has his arms around the Peaky Blinders. Knight wrote Dirty Pretty Things and Locke, among other tensely-plotted stories. (His reputation attracts the cream of English acting, all eager to fit their schedules around Knight's torrid filming schedule.) As the complex plotting goes forward, the question lurks whether the family can live down the past. Despite the new opulence, signs are everywhere that the bottom-feeding Shelby's have a long climb to fit into polite society -- their forward motion in Season 3 marks their lives with even more dour pessimism than in Seasons 1 & 2.

No surprise that young actor Finn Cole was gleeful in his enthusiasm about season 3. His character Michael, Aunt Polly Gray's long lost son, is aptly named to follow in Michael Corleone's path. He morphs from sunny young protege destined to benefit from legitimizing illegal businesses to wearing the tortured face of the portrait of Dorian Gray aging in the attic of Oscar Wilde's famous novel. Michael Gray turns steely cold, begging to pull the trigger on a Shelby enemy, a priest who had abused him in childhood (played by Paddy Considine, far left in picture at bottom.) We'll see in future if Michael's middle class rearing in an adoptive family will make his young adult life any less fraught than his older Shelby cousins whose youth in a Small Heath slum schooled them in ruthlessness. For now, Finn Cole is relishing every minute of Michael's roller coaster ride to hell (below, and at bottom, pictured next to his real life brother, Joe Cole, who plays brother John Shelby, second and third from right.)

Series 1 and 2 accomplish the Shelby conquest of the territories of Birmingham bookie mogul Billy Kimber and his London doppleganger, Darby Sabini. Nearly meeting his end at the hand of Sabini and other forces in Season 2, Tommy is saved by Winston Churchill who will expect payment in future. Season 3 opens with the favor being called in. High up government Brits want Tommy to assist a family of exiled White Russian nobility who are plotting against Bolsheviks in their former homeland. Below, the Russians promise Tommy recompense in jewels he thinks they will never deliver; he plans a double-cross.

After a fevered fan wait, season 3 begins with Tommy's marriage at his splendid home where we learn which of his lovers is the bride but more important, the Russian plot is launched in a classic wedding stramash. Tommy and his family have now converted their huge illegal gambling cash business into objects including the large estate for Tommy and stepped up life styles for family members. There's a religious wife for brother Arthur (most crazed by WWI trenches). Linda, the lovely Kate Phillips (Jane Seymour in Wolf Hall, see her 4th from right in picture at bottom), intends to separate Arthur from the family to pursue a righteous path in America. Sudanese born English actor Alexander Siddig (Game of Thrones) becomes Aunt Polly's (the spectacular Helen McGrory) portrait painter and love interest. He depicts her as a woman of 'style & substance' on canvas, but she fears that 'a woman like me' may be over-reaching.

Luscious Dutch talent Gaite Jansen, Russian Princess Tatiana (below), torments and teases Tommy, tricking him into episodes of obscene decadence and hidden agendas. He excuses his participation in her sex games as "work" --- he needs to find out where the Russians store their trove of precious jewels.

Tom Hardy, stepping in here as Tommy's gemologist, gives us the next iteration of the syrupy duplicitous Jewish crime boss, Alfie Solomons, a character so meaty you want to cut him with a knife and mop up the juice with a loaf of challah. Writer Knight has so many balls in the air that Hardy shouldn't steal every second he's on screen. But he does. (He's shown below and in photograph at bottom, second from left.)

Many actors are seeking the role of the next James Bond, but there is only one who would bring true genius to the part -- the brilliant Tom Hardy.

Season 3 ends with Tommy dividing his behemoth take from the Russian deal among family, while simultaneously putting them in grave danger -- a depressing betrayal and cliffhanger to be resolved by Season 4. The Peaky's do not offer an appetizing ride; Knight pushes the viewer's buttons repeatedly. But intense, clever plotting, idiosyncratic, memorable characters, terrific acting, and the untidy view of the underbelly of Merry old England combine to makes addicts of its die-hard fans. Seasons 4 and 5 have been commissioned, there's a hint Brad Pitt may step in, and Knight hopes to take the Shelby gang to the start of World War II, sorting out if, how, or whether they are able to merge their crude origins with their arrival in polite society.

The above post is written by our monthly
correspondent, Lee Liberman.

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