To the probable chagrin of some, this critic has to admit: hyper-stylisation in TV is great fun. It may be considered hubristic, over the top, dissociated from the real world, but think of the pictures, the music, and the massive characters that storm across the smaller screen. Filmmakers dive head-first into operatic storytelling, grazing magic realism with fantastical depictions of deep-seated truths.
Euphoria achieves it with overwhelming brilliance, despite its critics, and Birmingham-bred writer Steven Knight achieves the same with his cinematic gangster drama Peaky Blinders. The series, which started in 2013, wields the bullet casings of Shakespeare and the American Western but shoots from a rusty, Brummie cylinder. And with plenty of Tarantino-esque needle-drops to boot. But it's the Western aspects that Peaky embraces the most, grittily subverted by Knight choosing soot over sunsets.
The start of its sixth and final season (to be followed by a movie) even resembles a Sergio Leone rumble. Time jumps forward to 1933 and the gang leader/MP for Birmingham South
Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) enters a tavern on a French island off the Canadian coast. It’s a tense environment inside, exaggerated by a rhythmic squeak from outside –
evoking the titles in Leone’s vengeful masterstroke Once Upon a Time in the West.
Episode one might as well be called Once Upon a Time on Miquelon Island.
You can perhaps understand why we can’t reveal too much, and that’s probably the best way to experience Peaky's ashen spectacle: it’s never a predictable journey. At the end of season five, Tommy’s plans to assassinate the fascist leader Oswald Mosley (a pompously terrifying Sam Claflin) failed and he fled to a field to shoot himself. We can’t get into what happens next, but a new and difficult layer grows over Tommy’s efforts. He didn’t foresee something, and that continues to torture him.
It’s curious that season six should come so soon after Ozark’s approaching conclusion. Tommy and Marty Byrde share a potentially doomed aspiration of overcoming one more hurdle before ending the entire business. One more item, and he’s done – liberated from the bloodstained life he’s led since the First World War ended. It’s something of a cliché, like a detective who’s close to retiring, but it’s balanced by Tommy’s genuine desire to change himself.
As well as dealing with new business interests, Tommy tempers and exploits the rise of fascism in Europe and endures his antagonistic cousin Michael (Finn Cole), who has split from the family.
Finn Cole as Tommy's antagonistic cousin Michael. Photo: BBC
Peaky wouldn’t be much without violence, but the always possible threat of it in the dialogues and negotiations – often quietly conducted – packs this season with razor-sharp edges. Tommy thinks miles ahead of everyone and he's armed with plenty of resolutions, but you’re sometimes unsure. Does he have all the good cards, or is he just wearing a bulletproof poker face? Murphy returns to the role so comfortably, playing a character who is as confident reciting poetry as he is slicing someone’s face.
Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho, The Queen's Gambit) also returns as Michael’s extravagant and slightly naïve American wife Gina Gray. Despite playing one of the flatter female characters, Taylor-Joy crafts a vaguely deceitful and effortlessly seductive performance. We can’t reveal the circumstances around Tommy’s aunt Polly, played by the enchanting and invigorating Helen McCrory who died last year, but her presence still lingers like a portentous phantom.
Episodes one and two (the only ones available to review) provide an excellent beginning to the end. The latter drifts into especially weird directions, entering a psychological horror film at times, but these keep you on your toes and never lose their thrill. By order of the Peaky Blinders: you will be entertained.
Peaky Blinders, season 6, will air on Sunday 27 February at 9pm on BBC One
|What||Peaky Blinders, season 6, BBC One, first-look review|
27 Feb 22 – 27 Feb 23, ON BBC ONE
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