Sunday, November 17, 2019

November Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman: PEAKY BLINDERS 5 -- Tommy Shelby Meets a Fascist Power Player

Steven Knight’s magnetic (or repellant, depending on your tolerance for violence) gangster series* based on his working-class Birmingham roots (said to be bookended by the two world wars but, he hints, may go further) still gives you chills from the first sight of Tommy Shelby on his horse. Series 5 opens with the 1929 Wall Street crash which thundered across the pond. Tommy (Cillian Murphy, at right and below) and his nouveau-riche family (Aunt Polly Gray, played by Helen McCrory, two photos down, now has a Bentley and a boy-toy pilot to fly her to Monaco) have an overseas base in Detroit. It supports Shelby dealings in cars and motor equipment and is run by Aunt Polly’s long lost son, whiz kid Michael Gray (Finn Cole). Tommy told Michael to sell their U.S. stock holdings but Michael took American advice — now their pile is up in smoke.

Tommy, bookmaker turned socialist politician, is now a Labour MP, self-styled man of the people. He has married his secretary, former prostitute Lizzie (Natasha O’Keefe), after getting her pregnant. They are companionable, but in difficult moments, Tommy conjures true-love first wife Grace (Annabelle Wallace), murdered in series 3 but alive to him (and us). However, he pursues without drama what he does best — scheme, strategize, and direct subordinates. He operates under the theory that "the corridors of Westminster are very dimly lit, and for those who make the rules there are no rules... we own the ropes. Who's going to hang us now, eh?"

Knight’s smart, taut story-telling continues to attract fresh top talent, including Anya Taylor-Joy (Split, The Miniaturist) as American mob daughter, Gina, Michael Gray’s new wife. Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), as gypsy, Abarama Gold, is now a full fledged gang member; the recently dead Alfie Solomons, played by Tom Hardy, is happily undead, though beloved labor leader Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy) is given short shrift. Knight reports that a part may be forthcoming for Brad Pitt who has expressed interest in joining the saga.

Episode one resets the Peaky template, its most potent imagery and sound tuned to doleful theme song, Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand and overall pungent scoring by British songwriter, Anna Calvi. (She has just released You’re not God, written for Series 5.) Loner Tommy rides out into the countryside to a lone red phone booth; he plugs in a coin, and orders a hit. Tommy describes the ensuing shoot out later to his querulous family Board (the Shelbys now avoid the bloody side of their business). As a one-time favor to a high court judge and House of Lords member, and, notably, for 50k pound in cash, a pimp was killed who traffics children — the pimp was blackmailing the judge.

"Now the pimp is lying in a ditch..and the world is in a better place," says older brother Arthur, above (Paul Anderson), whose moods range from docile to ferocious. His Quaker wife Linda (Kate Phillips) is done with her rescue mission of this most violent, damaged Shelby— she’s had it. And ‘Holy fuck’, exclaims sister Ada, below, (Sophie Rundle). "So now your business is improving the world?.....". (Rundle distinguished herself lately playing lesbian Anne Lister’s ‘wife’ in Gentleman Jack.)

Ada’s taunt turns out to be thematic: Tommy does good by doing bad but his intention is indifferent. In fact he operates stone-cold vacant, having been drained of emotion long ago by the war and the loss of Grace.

Before this episode ends, we have met this season’s nemesis: real politician and MP, Oswald Mosley, who led the rise of the fascist party in Great Britain. A swave, handsome devil married to the most beautiful of the 3 Mitford sisters, he’s played by Sam Claflin (Their Finest) in a role Claflin (below r; the real Mosley, l) calls his most grown up, that is, playing the conniving, manipulative, magnetic demagogue of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

The 1929 crash is the background noise of this season along with mob actions to replenish company coffers; also, lovely Michael Gray is now dour; he has returned from Detroit and his friction with Tommy is rough. But writer Knight has positioned the rise of Oswald Mosley of Ancoats, sixth baronet (1896-1980), as the focus, to coincide with the twenty-first century rise of demagoguery. Director Anthony Byrne (Ripper Street, Mr. Selfridge) describes the period as a breeder of fascism, which spread like an incurable disease. Claflin says of Mosley: “ ...he was both incredibly charismatic and incredibly manipulative...people fell for it without agreeing with anything he [said]...the same as the Trump situation.....”

Winston Churchill says to Tommy: “When I hear that man speak, I see the green shoots of another war growing up around his feet. And you see exactly the same thing I do.”

Mosley left the Labour Party to start the British Union of Fascists, was voted out of his seat in Parliament, but led the fascist party (50,000 members) from 1932-40 and its successor, the Union Movement, from 1948 until 1980, his death. (Below Mosley in 1934; Encyclopedia Britannica.)

Claflin gives Mosley the authority that seduced his followers but not quite the charisma. But we do get a hint of what’s coming in Mosley’s later populist campaigns — ‘BRITAIN FIRST’ and ‘FALSE NEWS’ — messages smartly rejected by the British electorate.

Tommy and Mosley take their measure of each other and joust verbally with mutual dislike — if Tommy were real, the two would certainly have interacted. Here Tommy has Churchill’s blessing to spy on Mosley with the aim of taking him down (“Do what you have to do, Mr. Shelby”); we look forward to seeing our bad man trounce that other bad one, so redolent of Hitler and other flashes in the pan who have punctuated recent history.

Series 5 has been panned as the worst and praised as the best — it churns with comic-book violence and super-seriousness; but the tone is depressed because Tommy is depressed. He fears he is losing his edge, his seat on the mountain top. He uses opium regularly. His successes offer no satisfaction and bad things keep happening. Tommy is less mindful of Mosley’s fascism than of his growing power — better have him out of the way. Nephew Michael Gray (second photo below with his new wife) is also a threat, having crafted his own path to the top. Tommy’s little daughter Ruby is afraid of him, and he’s shamed by son Charlie: “it’s what everybody says’s what you do...shoot horses...shoot people .....”

Think of this outing with the Shelby’s as a dreary passage in the long story of their lives, more downer than upper. We leave Tommy seriously down, hanging by a thread. The series thrives on the stories about this extended family. The Mosley/fascist digression is especially noteworthy now and reveals how intently the British follow American politics — Europeans are reportedly carrying our impeachment hearings live. But one hopes Knight makes more stories about gritty, dusty, clanging Birmingham and the locals closest to his heart.

The Bafta-award winner has moved up from BBC Two to Britain’s premier BBC One channel (it plays on Netflix here) because the gang who weaponize razor blades are now popular and notorious. It’s the British version of our own crime sagas like ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and ‘The Godfather’, and will have its own distinctive place in film history — its characters are that well-conceived and entertaining. Steven Knight is currently writing the scripts for Series Six.

*Note: ‘Peaky Blinders’ beginnings are reviewed HERE

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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