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Weekly Watch: ‘Peaky Blinders’

| Tuesday, February 16, 2016

WeeklyWatchERIC RICHELSEN | The Observer

The classic story of a gangster family that we often see portrayed in modern day New York is being retold in a unique historical setting. In “Peaky Blinders” we encounter a similar character dynamic filled with both family drama and political tension, with the new cultural influences of post-World War I Birmingham.

The silly-sounding title “Peaky Blinders” reveals little about the series content, that is, until the term has been deciphered. To the Shelby clan that practically runs Birmingham, peaky blinders refer to the razor blades sewn into the peaks of their caps that are literally used to blind opponents in a brawl with a slash across the face. You can’t make this stuff up — and they didn’t. The series is based on a real Birmingham gang from the 1920s.

The show is a glamorized version of realistic events. Many of the scenes are dark but there’s also a flashy element. The characters’ fashion reflects their military background. Everything is neat and clean-cut, prepared by men who were trained for military precision. The haircuts are sharp, dramatic shaven sides with a long top. I wonder if the style is really based on the period or a modern interpretation of the style.

If you have no stomach for violence, the cinematography of violent scenes is in your favor. Hazy erratic shows distort the view of violent events, showing enough that you understand what happens, but without the gut-curdling gore.

However sensitive the audience may be to violence, the show’s characters certainly are not. “Peaky Blinders” is set in the aftermath of World War I, when it was considered shameful to not have fought, and people (Inspector Campbell) were criticized for not having been “in France.” In the war, the men had experiences like seeing their friends blown to pieces and fearing for their immediate survival. They were unable to submit to feelings like fear, disgust and empathy. They had to take on a utilitarian perspective to justify war acts. Not only has their rational perspective changed, but has been damaged in many due to PTSD.

Some were crippled by it and no longer able to function, like Arthur, the eldest Shelby brother who returned from the war unable to lead his family. Others like Tommy, the younger but truly most powerful brother were mainly hardened by it, though not without the occasional opium-induced flashback. The military aftermath permeates the psyche of almost all the men in the community, making it inherent in the society. The entire social climate has changed to an emotionally closed off battle for survival, so much so that it’s normal at this time.

Cillian Murphy portrays the clearly ambitious yet mysterious Tommy Shelby in stoic rule over Birmingham. Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) is the wise, rational voice of the family. Together, they clash with sadistic Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) who is ruthless in his mission to take down Tommy Shelby. The Shelbys deal with conflict with the coppers, the communists and the IRA, all complicated by forbidden romance.

A modern soundtrack transports the audience from modern day into the world of “Peaky Blinders.” The series hammers us with intensity from Jack White in Raconteurs and White Stripes tracks, and evolves into a more modern sound later in the series with recent hits from Arctic Monkeys and PJ Harvey. The feeling from the music teleports us to a different-looking time. Season two had a lot of differences in the soundtrack, so you might hear any of your most sinister favorite artists in the third season.

This week, catch up with “Peaky Blinders” on Netflix. Season three is expected to come out in April.

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