Set in 1919 Birmingham, this show covers the lives the of Shelby family, key members of the Peaky Blinders, a gang whose name comes from the razor blades they hide in their caps. The Blinders are bookmakers, race-fixers, and common shakedown thugs, but their leader wants more.
The cinematography for this show is elegant and stylish, and the atmospherics are classic crime drama genre. You’ll recognize a lot of the visuals. Also of note: rather than a lot of tinny recordings from the time period, the background music is Nick Cave and The White Stripes. For some reason, that really works rather than coming across as some sort of Film School 101 attempt at edginess.
As Tommy Shelby, head of the gang, Cillian Murphy is shrewd, ruthless, and hard as a diamond. He’s returned from World War I a war hero, and without an interest in anything other than expanding his gang’s territory. He is also joined by his older brother Arthur, who lacks Tommy’s ruthlessness and good judgment (as Tommy tells his brother, “I think so you don’t have to.”); his other brother, John, a harried widower full of youthful bravado; and his sister, Ada, who is clearly the only other intelligent sibling, and who is dating the head of the local Communists (a thorn in Tommy’s side). Rounding out this family is Aunt Polly, the matriarch, played by the ever-charismatic Helen McCrory. Although she kowtows to her nephew as head of the family business, Polly rules supreme over family matters. She ran the gang while Tommy was at war, and still acts as a behind-the-scenes consigliere.
Sam Neill plays Chief Inspector Campbell, who’s trying to shut down the Peaky Blinders. At Winston Churchill’s request, he’s arrived from Belfast in pursuit of an enormous cache of government weapons, which have ended up in the Blinders’ hands. He brings with him dozens of new police officers from Belfast. Campbell’s first step is to bring in Arthur Shelby and have him beaten bloody.
Tommy sees these weapons as a way to elevate the Blinders; Aunt Polly sees the trouble they bring with them and berates Tommy. He assures her he’ll do the right thing, which in his eyes is to hide them in case the government raids the Blinders’ establishment. However, as he points out to a gang member, when fortune puts something valuable in your lap, you don’t just throw it away: someone will have to pay. He’s not a one-trick pony — err, risk-taker: in addition to taking advantage of this windfall, Tommy also fixes a series of races. His brother Arthur warns him that this is dangerous, but Tommy is untroubled.
An applicant named Grace shows up for a barmaid position at the Garrison, the rowdy bar where the Blinders use the back room for business. She’s educated and refined and clearly doesn’t belong there. The owner says no way — as a woman, she’ll be in danger from the bars’ patrons. However, she is able to persuade him by mentioning that she hails from Galway, and by singing a mournful Irish tune. (By the way, I was reminded while watching this show how much mournful Irish songs set my teeth on edge. I am a failed Irishwoman, it seems.) The owner knows that the singing will be a draw and figures that music will calm the savage beast. Her initial encounter with Tommy at the bar is the antithesis of a meet cute — he asks her if she’s a whore and tells her if not, she’s in the wrong place. Her boss tells her to stay away from Tommy and his ilk, because if one of them wants her, there’s nothing he’ll be able to do about it. Fortunately for her, he adds, since he got back from the war, Tommy isn’t interested in anyone. (ANNNNNNNNNNND gauntlet thrown, the audience says.)
The PBs would also do well to steer away from Grace, since she is an undercover agent for Campbell. Her father was killed by the IRA, so it’s personal, you see. She thinks the gangs and the Communists are too weak to have stolen the weapons, leaving the IRA as the likely candidate. She’s intrigued by Tommy, as, I believe, any woman with a pulse would be.
The Great War also haunts Danny, one of Tommy’s fellow soldiers, a family man who has PTSD and who, in a moment of delusion, kills a café owner who is related to the local Italian mob. To keep the peace, Tommy agrees to kill his friend mercifully. He promises his friend he’ll take care of his widow and sons, and keep the latter out of the gangs. It turns out later that although it looks like Danny was shot and killed, he was merely knocked unconscious by a shell full of sheep brains. Tommy then sends Danny into London to spy on various undisclosed goings-on. Welcome to the Blinders, Danny.
Most of the performances in this show are top-notch. Murphy plays Tommy as reined in, with his emotions clearly in check. He always underplays, not overplays, Tommy’s feelings, which is smart considering the drama that swirls around the Shelbys. Helen McCrory is riveting as Aunt Polly. Polly is a woman with a steel rod for a spine, but McCrory steers clear of some of the clichés associated with matriarch roles — she has moments of normalcy and vulnerability.
I’m less enamored of the character of Grace, who presents the Betty Draper conundrum: Is she a cool customer who keeps her composure, or is the actress simply not very good? I honestly can’t tell at this point.
Coming up in future episodes: Tommy continues his plan for domination of Birmingham, people look immensely cool doing things, and hopefully, the singing of Irish bar songs is kept to a minimum.