Definition: n. One of a class of hoodlums or hooligans in the Midlands, England: so called from their custom of wearing the peaks of their caps drawn down over their eyes when at their nefarious practices.
I love PEAKY BLINDERS, a visceral and beautifully envisaged British series on Netflix, not only for presenting the sting and stench of the brutal effects of poverty on the working poor, but giving us a sense of place - the pungent, smoke filled pavements of a post WW I metal working industrial city - fires blazing in the blackened alleys while the sunlight battles to make its way through the acrid polluted haze. In the center of town, we discern men’s bodies silhouetted by a deep yellow-orange glow from the red hot fires needed for fabrication, ovens spewing out soot and heat in the midst of the dusty, mud covered streets; torsos wet with the sweat of laboring night and day to survive in Birmingham England.
A magnificent white horse emerging out of the darkened mist moving in slow motion, feet hitting the cobblestones with a rhythmic clop clop clop - the only sound echoing in the stillness of the moment - an example of the stunning cinematography and the dramatic use of music that complements and completes the violent and poetic tone of the narrative. Expressive acting makes PEAKY BLINDERS not just a story about the Shelby Brothers - a violent street gang descended from Romas/Gypsies, outcasts who have taken over Birmingham through fear and intimidation, but a cautionary epic fable.
The leader of the “PEAKY BLINDERS” is Thomas Shelby ( an excellent performance by Cillian Murphy), a handsome, baby-faced young man with pellucid blue-eyes which appear to change colors along with his moods -from jet black when melancholy, to the hue of the infinite sky once he meets and falls in love with Grace (a lovely Annabelle Wallis,) an Irish barmaid who works in one of his establishments. Their deeply felt, enduring love story, gives us a glimpse into Thomas’ interior self - the antithesis of his gang’s calculating brutality and callous actions.
Thomas has returned from World War I, a hero, bedecked with medals, but besieged by horrific memories of what he had witnessed in the trenches in Europe, which can only be tranquilized by drugs self-injected in the privacy of his room. Yet Thomas Shelby does not operate in a vacuum - war has given him a renewed connection to the world outside his familiar “backyard,” and early 20th Century political history is interwoven into the plot; the “Peaky Blinders” gang are recruited into covert operations that impact Britain’s international relationships with other countries. Behind the facade of openness and transparency, stratagems were as twisted and covert then as they are today a hundred years later.
There are many wonderful characters In PEAKY BLINDERS, and in the course of the series, when impacted by events most of them go through intrinsic transformations. I am partial to Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory)- the matriarch of the family, wary of “outsiders”, whose personal background is strewn with the ghosts of those who have maimed and spit upon her. She embodies a woman who survived unspeakable abuse, and her shrewd advice is respected - having a voice in deciding which stratagems should be followed, guarding her family’s interests with the ferociousness of a lioness over her frolicking yet dangerous cubs.
Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) is the maniacal, oldest of the Shelby clan - the brother who should have been the titular chief of the group, but his decisions are clouded by alcohol along with an insane temper that is frequently propelling him to search for an opportunity to use his fists to batter someone into submission. Watching him move - ambling along the streets - his long limbs awkwardly jerking by his side - head slanting forward, his lean body screams a warning to anyone who might get in his way.
And then there is one of my favorite actors, Tom Hardy who never disappoints, playing an anomaly - Alfie Solomon, a religious Jewish gangster, a sometime ally of Thomas Shelby and at other times a treacherous opponent. When Hardy is on the screen, his presence dominates; there is a black humor to his performance especially when he quotes from the Old Testament while wielding a lethal weapon - blood exploding all over the walls, under his feet, and blinding his eyes.
PEAKY BLINDERS is a morality tale told without relinquishing its immorality. The most egregiously despairing scenes are filmed with a delicacy and sensitivity to the light and shadows of the existing ambience - be it malignant or sublime. Life in the slums of England are not glossed over or sentimentalized; overstepping ones class “boundaries” is not hubris, but rather a case of uncooked ambition and dreams achieved…..at a cost.