Peaky Blinders is a BBC television series that first aired in 2013, with its second series airing last year and a third being recently commissioned. Broadly speaking, it’s a dramatic crime epic that focuses on the Shelby family and co. as they attempt to expand their somewhat illegitimate empire during Britain’s interwar years. Starting in Birmingham before moving down to London, the series stars Cillian Murphy, Sam Neill, Helen McCrory, Paul Anderson, Joe Cole, Annabelle Wallis and more recently Noah Taylor and Tom Hardy – yes, that one. So why should you be watching Peaky Blinders?
As you can tell, it’s a large ensemble cast, which tends to work in one of two ways; either, as has happened in some instances, some of the characters are overdeveloped at the expensive of the others, who, because of their underdevelopment, hugely lack empathy and so the audience simply do not care about them, however much charm the lead/s might have, or, alternatively and ideally, it all slots together perfectly and you get things like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones and Band of Brothers. Peaky Blinders thankfully, is definitely in the latter category. Cillian Murphy is consistently excellent as Thomas Shelby, the self-styled leader of the family, business and otherwise. He follows the recent antihero trend to a high degree of success through his strong performance as the driven, ruthless, but surprisingly warm character. Helen McCrory is also excellent as the matriarchal figure of the family – though that description does perhaps demean her character somewhat, as one thing that Peaky Blinders excels at is presenting female characters as characters, rather than as props in male dominated storylines. Indeed it pays attention to the fact that patriarchy was even more prominent in the early 20th century than it is today, but it does not use this as an excuse to lower their significance or objectify them – in fact, quite the opposite.
The sense of escalation and the constant state of danger and tension rarely stops to take a break.
Paul Anderson is chillingly believable as the psychopathic Arthur Shelby, a man who is not merely a clichéd screen maniac but one who simply has entirely lost control of his own self and of his own actions, full of rage, guilt, and even pity. His character’s arc so far is reminiscent of the “wading through blood” speech in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in that he’s gone too far in to turn back. Indeed this metaphor works quite well to describe the show as a whole, as the sense of escalation and the constant state of danger and tension rarely stops to take a break – whether it’s the pulsing Black Keys/Artic Monkeys soundtrack or the fast-paced editing and stylish montages, something just clicks. The show goes and goes at breakneck speed and doesn’t stop to ask whether you want to slow things down.
This might not be to everyone’s tastes but make no mistake, these are well written, fully-rounded characters, some that you hate, many that you like, but few that you love – none of them, even the protagonists and those on the side of the law, are particularly lovable characters, and this is to the shows credit. It would certainly be easier to make Thomas Shelby some God-sent Cary Grant-with-a-flat-cap-type figure with a quip here and there- easier, but not better. Indeed the show has these moments, but it’s not Carry On Extorting. In fact the show is intensely violent, gritty too, and whilst it doesn’t gratuitously focus on this violence it bravely doesn’t shy away from the fact that these are real characters having glass shoved into places that they weren’t particularly planning on having glass shoved. This gives the violence some proper weight and seriousness. It’s bloody, dark and brooding, and sits perfectly in the industry-heavy, post-war cityscapes in which these events are unfolding. These moments of violence are done excellently and match the brilliance of the calmer dramatic moments of the various plots too, strengthening the escalatory nature of the show.
The addition of Tom Hardy was an inspired move.
It’s really come into its own with the second series too, and the addition of Tom Hardy was an inspired move – needless to say he’s brilliant in his role, and Noah Taylor, whilst a bit of a caricature, is still fantastic as rival crime boss Darby Sabini. Sam Neill also comes across as a bit of an out-of-work-thespian but it works well for his character and for the show – it’s not an understated programme by any standards so the in-your-face performance actually meshes perfectly with the constant drama of the series.
In short, Peaky Blinders is simply great entertainment. It might not have many, if any deeper meanings and it’s not as plodding with regard to story as say, Downton Abbey is, but nor should it be. The cast is excellent, the characters are brilliant, the soundtrack is fitting, the story a refreshing historical fiction, as well as reminding audiences of classic gangster flicks such as Goodfellas, what’s there not to like?
By Oliver Rowe