BINGE-R #52: Peaky Blinders + Weekend Movies
PEAKY BLINDERS S1
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming (plus S2 + S3)
Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor who stars in the period British crime drama Peaky Blinders, has icy blue eyes so menacingly arresting that the phrase “if looks could kill” takes on vital new meaning. The directors for this gangster tale know it too, drawing the camera slowly in to his unmoving face to emphasise moments of tension. It works well, helping to distinguish the show – which is now up to date on Netflix with all three seasons available – from the numerous other series about criminal clans and their taciturn anti-heroes. Beneath the savagery and the scams there’s an underlying sense of mournful ambition to Murphy’s Tommy Shelby and his quest for power without glory.
The setting is working class Birmingham, the time 1919: recently returned World War One veterans struggle with PTSD, the Russian Revolution is barely 18 months old, and the vast industrial might of the British Empire creates a cacophonous bellow and otherworldly tableaus of ash and fire. Tommy rides a horse into the first scene, suggesting a western, and creator Steven Knight (Locke), keeps knocking expectations sideways. Sometimes it’s trifling, as with the flashes of garage-rock rumble as a score, but others are fascinating: when Tommy’s former best friend, communist agitator Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), hears police whistles outside a strike meeting, he reminds those present how they sound just like the whistles that sent them into battle on the western front.
That leap from organised crime to political expediency is a recurring theme. As feared locally as the Shelby clan are for their gambling and protection rackets, it’s Tommy’s decision to hold onto a batch of stolen weapons that attracts the attention of London. Special Branch officer Chester Campbell (Sam Neill), just returned from Belfast, is Tommy’s true adversary, although there are no shortages of third parties (the IRA, gypsy clans, established crime syndicates) to colour the conflict. The street preacher who declares “judgment is coming” was probably a superfluous touch.
The trademark of the Peaky Blinders gang is razor blades sewn into the lining of their flat caps, but strategy is more prominent than the stylised violence. It’s a cruel, curdled environment, as the new barmaid with a background, Grace Burgess (Anabelle Wallis), discovers, but one of the defining elements of what is a strong first season is how women are central to the Shelby gang and the storyline. Tommy’s only equal internally is his formidable Aunt Pol (Helen McCrory), who ran operations while the men served during the war, and whatever the plotting builds to there’s always more to Peaky Blinders than the triumph of the tarnished.
>> Bonus Binge: If you want another crime drama with an uncertain protagonist and an unexplored setting, the two seasons of Netflix’s Narcos, which traces the rise of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a potential series for you.
THREE WEEKEND MOVIES
If you want a crime documentary about wine and privilege…
Sour Grapes (Netflix, 2016, 85 minutes): Invoking a Gatsby-like mythology and drily dissecting what happened when fine wine became a commodity class for the wealthy, Reuben Atlas and Jerry Rothwell’s piquant documentary charts the rise and fall of Rudy Kurniawan, a charming Los Angeles arriviste who bought, shared and sold what appeared to be the greatest wine cellar ever assembled. Kurniawan created a boom even as a disparate group of sceptics, including a storied French vintner and a billionaire sibling of the Koch Brothers, unwound his ploys. Complete with comic touches worthy of Wes Anderson, the film reveals the capricious psychology of good taste, with those who fall hardest for their gregarious host’s scams wine aficionados who considered their palate to be refined.
If you’re after a knowingly funny horror film…
The Cabin in the Woods (Stan + Netflix, 2012, 95 minutes): Co-written by Joss Whedon post-Buffy and pre-Avengers, this wonderfully witty horror film deliberately shows you the controlling mechanisms of the genre before nonetheless drawing you back into harried believability as the frights take hold. When five archetypal college students – including Chris Hemsworth as the jock – go to the archetypal horror film setting, they’re in fact being used as sacrificial offerings inside a controlled environment where ancient myth and corporate doldrums run in parallel. The operation, which unleashes monsters of every type, is run with macabre dexterity by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s staffers, with the idea of ritual killings to satisfy a hungry deity a fitting metaphor for the way horror audiences expect their taste for blood and violence to be satiated.
If you prefer a masterful biopic…
Ali (SBS on Demand, 2002, 150 minutes): Focused on the tumultuous decade between 1964 and 1974 – when Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight boxing title of the world, had it stripped and faced imprisonment for refusing to serve in the U.S. Army, before winning it back at the Rumble in the Jungle in what was then Zaire – this biopic from Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider) takes in race relations, African-American history, and the political realities of celebrity. It’s a sprawling film whose underlying focus seeps upwards through one bravura sequence after another, with Will Smith’s champion a protagonists whose contradictions can only be encompassed by his greatness in the ring. Defiant in his faith, cavalier with his marriages, Ali is at his most graceful when expressing himself through the expert application of violence.
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