Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Steven Knight's PEAKY BLINDERS -- Our bad men

Today's post is written by our sometimes correspondent, Lee Liberman

PEAKY BLINDERS is the story of a 1920's English gang named for their peaked caps into which razor blades were stuck for cutting enemies. (The real Peaky Blinders are shown below.) It's a better Boardwalk Empire situated in grungy sulfuric Small Heath, Birmingham, between World Wars. I struggled to get into it (not being a gang warfare fan) just to see the charismatic and unusual Irishman Cillian Murphy (above) in the lead with best Brits Tom Hardy, Charlotte Riley, Helen McCrory and Ireland-born/New Zealand-raised Sam Neill in major roles.

Sometimes you run across a gem and this is one -- slow to draw you in but increasing in addictiveness. It reminds one of The Godfather but is not operatic, rather with a grunge punk vibe -- it whines and bangs like the machines of industrial Birmingham, made immediate with its score of plaintive blues and metallic hard and boogie rock. Prolific screen-writer/novelist/director Steven Knight (below, of Dirty Pretty Things, Locke and many more) describes the Birmingham of the period as the workshop of the world, filled with weapons, cars, metal parts, liquor, and other goods for export -- a melting pot of hard men that drew workers from all over the UK. It was Knight's birthplace and the story of his parents' world.

A mix of fact and fiction, Peaky Blinders is novel genre to the Brits who feast on their aristocracy and great literature but not on their gangster past. Like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Tommy Shelby plans to convert the family's illegal betting (below), protec-tion, and black market rackets into legal busi-nesses. The dirty work proceeds as alliances shift among Gypsy, Jewish, and Italian gangs (Bolshe-viks and IRA too). The returnees from World War I have come back trained killers, suffering from PTSD, marinating in opium, cocaine, whisky -- ready to explode.

Even with the violence, one can get lost in the fathomless blue eyes of Tommy Shelby, whose angel face and self-knowing melts the heart of woman (if not man). The trenches stalk his sleep but his grip is firm on business. If necessary he'll pound a man to death, but he does try hard to avoid violence; this female viewer was sucked right in to Tommy's combine of soft-spoken iron rule and tenderness (almost willing to look the other way at his ruthlessness ).

Aunt Polly ran the gang's gambling business while Tommy and brothers Arthur and John (Paul Anderson, below, and Joe Cole) were at war; she is the family glue -- acted by marvelous Helen McGrory (above, from Harry Potter, Skyfall). Aunt Polly mothers rebellious niece Ada (Sophie Rundle) and the brothers; she's part matriarch, part floozy, part business woman, a deadly shot, disgusted at the violence of her nephews but quick to defend her bad men. (How's this for a power couple: McGrory and real-life spouse Damian Lewis.)

Tommy's nemesis, the vitriolic Major Campbell (Sam Neill, below) is a Belfast secret service officer imported by Winston Churchill, then secretary of state, to recover a shipment of stolen guns in Tommy's accidental possession before they get into the wrong hands (the IRA, for instance).

Campbell's distaste for the Peaky Blinders ratchets up as his sweetly beautiful spy Grace (Annabelle Wallace, below) betrays him by falling in love with Tommy. Campbell seethes: Tommy Shelby is a "murdering, cut-throat, mongrel gangster...a worm who crawls in through your ear..." No wonder. Tommy relentlessly goads Campbell over who dodged the war, who was the war hero, and whom Grace loves. 

Almost cartoonish, their combat has a touch of Warren Beatty's 1990 Dick Tracy vs arch-enemy 'Big Boy' Caprice (Al Pacino). The treacherous Campbell and other characters are over-blown just enough to cut the violence with the comic edge of something approaching camp. But they are still emotionally real -- Knight understands how people talk to each other. "People often say the opposite of what they mean, they repeat themselves constantly," he said in an interview. Knight's ear for real conversation makes his characters stick in your head.

The second series introduces some London based crime figures including Alfie Solomons, a real life Jewish crime boss played by Tom Hardy, magnetic no matter what he does. (His crazy- edged Alfie offers up a seder to die for, above). Hardy's wife, Charlotte Riley, (they met co- starring in PBS's 2009 "Wuthering Heights") plays aristocratic horse trainer, May, who takes on Tommy's horse for race-training and aims to saddle Tommy, too. Tommy leaves us dangling; he loves Grace but she betrayed him and May's world means door-openers for Shelby business.

The series received 6 BAFTA nominations (British Academy of Film and Television Art) and won 2013's Royal Television Society Award for best new series; yes -- it's just plain good. Steven Knight is a master of all parts. Snoop Dog is reported saying that gangs are copying the clothes, and I see Peaky Blinders haircuts on the street. Series 1 and 2 (6 episodes each) are streaming on Netflix now; Series 3 will debut fall, 2015.

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