This review contains spoilers. Read our spoiler-free review, here.
When I agreed to review Peaky Blinders for Den of Geek some weeks ago, I must admit I had little idea what I was signing up for. I had no clue what the programme would be about. I even thought the name was a little naff. So to have haphazardly stumbled across the most intelligent, stylish and engrossing BBC drama in ages is a real joy.
It follows the titular Peaky Blinders gang, a group of criminals that wear razor blades in their caps – hence the name – and strike fear into the hearts of those living in the slums of post-WWI Birmingham on the cusp of the 1920s. Leader of the Blinders is Tommy Shelby, a manipulative, wickedly intelligent gangster brought to life by Hollywood actor, Cillian Murphy. His accidental robbery of dozens of machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition heralds the arrival of Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill), an Irish officer hardened by the threat of the IRA.
Murphy is magnetic in the role. He is always the dominant force whenever on screen, and hard to take your eyes off when he is involved in the action. Bursting into action on horseback, his role as a gang leader feared by those around him is established beautifully here. Yet this is no hammy performance, it is tight, and controlled. It is great to have such a talented actor back on the small screen involved in a drama like this. It is hard to believe that Murphy has been away from our television screens since 2001’s The Way We Live Now. Plus, Murphy absolutely nails his Brummy accent. Good work, Cillian.
However, this opening episode is not all about Murphy. It does well to establish the world and core group of characters quickly and efficiently, with Sam Neill, Helen McCrory, Annabelle Wallis and Iddo Goldberg all standing out. Neill’s powerful Inspector Campbell provides the greatest threat to the Peaky Blinders outfit, and Neill produces the perfect balance of authority and cynicism. Campbell’s speech to his new charges – half an hour into the episode, and Neill’s first dialogue of any kind – is extremely powerful, wisely handled, and proves he will bring the dramatic force necessary to become a compelling antagonist for the rest of the series.
With all these characters to introduce, it’s a wonder that at no point is the plot in this opening episode confusing or contrived. It is a great credit to the writing of Steven Knight that the plotting is so solid, despite having to build a world and establish events in next to no time.
Looks-wise, the opening episode is beautiful. Shot primarily in Leeds and Liverpool, their streets substitute wonderfully for the lawless alleyways of the Second City, and all the costumes and sets definitely look the part. The direction from Otto Bathurst is cinematic in its scope, yet also intimate and intense. It helps give Peaky Blinders an immediate identity.
As you would expect for a drama set in 1919, the shadow of the Great War looms large over the events in this opening episode. The characters who had any involvement in the war are clearly damaged by it, particularly Danny Whizz-Bang, a local man maddened by shell shock. How much further the series looks into the effects of post traumatic stress is yet to be seen, but it could be an intriguing side thread, particularly for Tommy.
Influences from epic American gangster and Western films can be clearly felt here, with Tommy Shelby riding into action on a horse, bursting through the swinging saloon doors of a rowdy pub, or the Shelby family discussing ‘business’ like a mobster family in a Mario Puzo novel. It is unusual for a British drama to take such clear influences from American archetypes, but it is a refreshing take on a period crime drama.
The choice of music goes against the grain for a British drama too. Much like Bathurst’s direction, the decision to use modern rock as a soundtrack for a drama rooted in post-war Britain is a bold choice. It works wonderfully, proving the show is confident enough to blaze its own brash, edgy path. The second I heard the intense riffs of I Think I Smell a Rat by The White Stripes, I knew I had found a show for me.
The musical choices pretty much define for me why it looks like Peaky Blinders will be brilliant viewing. It is daring, and more importantly, a lot of fun. Do not be fooled – Peaky Blinders is complex and substantial viewing. Yet it manages to balance that out with a great sense of verve and style. An incredibly impressive start then, and one that I hope the rest of the series can live up to.
Read our interview with Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, here.
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