This review contains spoilers.
If the first episode of Peaky Blinders was a swaggering statement of intent, and the second episode a more introspective, character-driven piece, then this third episode is a wonderful blend of the two that continues the momentum created in those first two episodes.
One of the most satisfying things about Peaky Blinders so far is the female roles. From the adverts being aired before transmission, you could be mistaken for thinking this is a male-dominated drama, with peripheral female characters only providing romantic interest, or acting as a damsel in distress. Instead, it has provided intelligent, powerful roles for women.
Large parts of last week’s episode of Peaky Blinders dealt with the matriarchal Polly, played by Helen McCrory. Here the focus here shifts slightly, with Grace, played by Annabelle Wallis, stepping into the limelight. During the course of this episode, Grace tracks a member of the IRA, accidentally kills him, offers comfort to Ada, partakes in flirty repartee with Tommy before joining him at Cheltenham races, where she goes from pretending to be a wealthy Irish dame to a cheap whore with the clap. There’s a lot going on in this episode for the character, and Wallis puts in a great performance.
As I mentioned in last week’s review, Wallis plays Grace with a delicacy of touch. She moves from ethereal Irish beauty to calculating police informant effortlessly, adding great depth and duality to a character that could have come off as hackneyed. Her feisty attitude when dealing with Tommy only adds to her charm, but Wallis also adds a vulnerability that grounds the character, Besides her obvious physical beauty, you can understand why Tommy would be attracted to her – Grace is enchanting.
The development of their relationship – whatever it is at this stage – is being handled very well. There have been no overt romantic moments between them, and Tommy’s true feelings are unclear. In a telling line, he tells Billy Kimber’s partner that ‘God’s honest truth, I don’t know what she is.’ That ambiguity and steady development is down to a masterclass in writing by Steven Knight. Each character has a definite voice and motivations, events are unfolding at a satisfying pace, and the world of the Peaky Blinders is gradually being fleshed out.
The strength of the writing shows through most prominently at one particular point in the episode: When Tommy shares with Danny, a fellow solider in the Great War, how the ordeals of the war haunt him every night. Wonderfully acted by Murphy and Samuel Edward-Cook, the impact the war has had is being handled very well. Instead of sanctimonious preaching about the terrors of the war, we get suppressed trauma affecting several of the characters. Great credit must be given for that realism.
The great writing asks a great deal from Cillian Murphy though, and he puts in another powerhouse performance as Tommy. He balances ruthless Machiavellian schemer with distraught shell-shock victim perfectly. A programme like Peaky Blinders lives or dies on the performance of its central character, and Murphy rises to the challenge comfortably.
The pregnancy storyline also felt more integral to the overarching plot this week, as opposed to another annoyance for Tommy. With Freddy returning to Birmingham and causing trouble, it helped to increase the tension between the Peaky Blinders and the police. Credit must again be given to the writing for weaving the varying plot strands together.
Peaky Blinders is also a feast for the eyes and ears. Yet again, the combination of Otto Bathurst’s direction and George Steel’s cinematography make the programme look cinematic. From the fiery industry of Birmingham to the busy underbelly of Cheltenham racecourse, every shot is vibrant, and intelligently framed. The blues-rock soundtrack also remains, with the music of Jack White again helping to set the tone.
The criticisms I raised last week about the accents are still valid. I think whether the questionable accents is a problem will vary from person to person. While some of the Midland or Irish accents do jar on the ear, I think it is something that can be easily looked past in view of the quality of the writing, acting, and direction.
So another very strong showing for Peaky Blinders. Balancing slow-burning plotlines with frenetic action has made for a compelling third episode. I can not wait to see where the drama takes us from here.
Read Tom’s review of the previous episode, here.
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