This review contains spoilers.
When are they going to start following brilliant, blistering Jimmy McGovern dramas with a helpline call-out? “If you were enraged by any of the searing political injustice raised in tonight’s episode, call this number to join the Socialist Party/find out about activism in your local area/eat the unfeeling rich.” Banished viewers needs somewhere to channel the anger stirred up by this effortlessly gripping drama. We’re too late to do much about eighteenth century colonials, but perhaps there’s a library-closure protest we can all go on before next week’s episode?
Putting to one side impotent fury against the inequities of yore, Banished has got off to a great start. It’s devastatingly romantic in an old-fashioned way, and spitting mad about injustice in a modern way. McGovern’s perennial theme of bullying power meeting spirited resistance translates beautifully to a 1788 New South Wales penal colony, a location that has beauty to spare.
As does the cast (which, between MyAnna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Orla Brady, Ewan Bremner and Genevieve O’Reilly, is approximately ninety percent cheekbone). Buring and Rhind-Tutt are Elizabeth and Tommy, the gorgeous convict couple on trial for their love in episode one, a pair not willing to give each other up on pain of death. “A convict will not die for a principle” opines Bremner’s Reverend Johnson. Want to bet, Spud?
Tommy doesn’t die of course, the noose being lifted from around his neck in time for a quickie gallows wedding to Elizabeth that’s sure to have repercussions over the remaining six episodes. As convict women belong to colonial soldiers, letting them be shared by other prisoners (or “scum” as Joseph Millson’s Major Ross, a sort of pre-epiphany Ebenezer Scrooge/mouthpiece for Cameron’s Britain) could lead to rebellion.
Such is the precarious position of this Great British colonial outpost, which is under threat from all quarters. Prisoners, privation, natives, its own soldiers – even their new home by the looks of the thick-limbed spider creeping about in the men’s cabin at night – are all potential destroyers of this cowardly new world.
Cowardly because, unlike its convicts, its rulers aren’t willing to stand up to bullies. Russell Tovey’s young, desperate prisoner, James Freeman (there’s nominative irony for you), goes up against the colony’s hulking food-stealing blacksmith (Rory McGann) and fails.
The bullying blacksmith plot has a sense of parable about it – the powerful take food out of the mouths of the hungry while the establishment looks the other way. The thief’s standing and profession insulate him from criminal prosecution. Simply put, the word of thieving blacksmith is worth more to the officers than that of “a decent man” who can’t keep the camp in tools. A venal establishment turning a blind eye to immoral crimes because of status and cash – where have we heard that one before?
As ever in McGovern’s writing, the women are where the real courage is. Buring is incandescent as the defiant, fierce Elizabeth Quinn, traded like chattel (even, arguably, between the two men who love her) and forced to offer up her body as her sole bargaining chip, either to be flogged or – to use one of the script’s terms – shagged. O’Reilly too, is moving as Mrs Johnson, the reverend’s wife whose conscience results in Tommy and Elizabeth’s triumph. How long will that triumph last, we’re prompted to ask by that final shot of the noose hanging over them all.
In short, has Jimmy McGovern’s latest drama done it again? Yes boss.
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