This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers.
My early knowledge about the Gunpowder plot came from a Ladybird book in their Adventure from History series. It went into a good amount of detail about certain elements such as the people behind the plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament and how they were caught. It was an intriguing business, but it wasn’t until many years later that I made an emotional connection to it through Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. Desperation, fear, and persecution seeped into the mix. Every year, on the fifth of November, I think about those two very different influences and how strangely they sit together in my imagination.
Now there’s a third influence in the form of BBC’s three part series (airing on HBO in the states), Gunpowder, and in the first episode it reminds me of nothing so much as Hammer Horror – at least, the best parts do. There’s even a touch of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General about it, so we’re in really dark territory that takes its time establishing the horrendous acts committed in finding and stamping out Catholicism during the reign of James I.
We start out watching a Catholic Mass, conducted by candlelight in a fine house, and then make a swift cut to men on horseback, riding towards that house, and know nothing good is about to happen. A sense of menace hangs over the scene, leading to a long search for priests around the house that really builds the tension. I particularly liked this slow build-up; the dialogue, in particular, was effective in its mannered verbosity as a counterpoint to the threat. At one point the accuser said to a defiant Liv Tyler (playing a member of the family in a fairly minor role so far), “The air, Madam, is rancid with popery.” That’s the kind of language that makes you sit up and pay attention.
From there, things only got more macabre, as we moved straight on to the hanging, drawing and quartering.
It’s a queasily entertaining business, watching the lingering torture and murder of Catholics in front of a crowd who are definitely enjoying themselves, but that’s certainly a very good way to establish a strong motivation to not get caught, particularly for the angry ringleader of the plot-to-be, Robert Catesby (played by Kit Harington). In fact, that’s about all the explanation we get; he’s angry. That’s it. It’s a one-note motivation. And other characters don’t fare any better in what feels like quite simplistic characterisation throughout.
This is the biggest problem when it comes to our apparent villain (played by Mark Gatiss) – Robert Cecil, spymaster, and the right-hand man of James I. There’s a lot of eyebrow raising and manipulative posturing as the story embraces its spy thriller elements, but I’m not sure this subject deserves such a cut and dried approach. It feels like it only skims the surface of events and presents complex issues in an over-simplistic format. Perhaps its a sign that three episodes is not really going to be enough to do this justice, but I do wonder if a more nuanced performance on the part of Gatiss might have helped here as well.
Having said that, there are many actors doing good work. Beatrice Comins is very affecting as Catesby’s brave aunt, and she brings dignity to bloody scenes. I particularly liked Shaun Dooley as Catholic-catcher Sir William Wade, as well; with a wide-brimmed hat and a commanding, almost amused gaze up to the camera, he reminded me of Orson Welles at times. Peter Mullan appears as a Catholic priest, and I’m hoping he’ll get more to do in later episodes.
Everything looks sumptuous and rich by candlelight (and there are an awful lot of candles on display), which is contrasted nicely by director J. Blakeson with the awful acts of threat and torture conducted in the cold light of day; generally, Gunpowder is a treat to the eyes, and it’s not afraid to use the soundtrack to ramp up the tension, too – perhaps that’s another reason why it reminded me of Hammer’s classic films at times. Those are the moments that I really enjoyed, as a long-time classic horror film fan, and it also seemed apt for the subject matter. It is a horrible, gory business, and it’ll sit alongside my existing influences on the subject of Bonfire Night, even if I probably got a more detailed explanation of it all from Ladybird.
So nuance and characterisation aren’t really strong points, but when it does horror and tension, Gunpowder excels. Now the establishing work is out of the way in this first episode, I’m hoping for much more of those two vital ingredients. After all, we know where this story is going. Bloodshed and mayhem are definitely lined up, particularly with the late and sensational appearance of one Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen) – I’d like more of it, please. Forget the spycraft and bring on the horror.