Peaky Blinders (2013) British Post-WWI Gangster Saga

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Sometimes you just have to stretch definitions. I’ve included other movies and TV series which were not exactly “war films” but dealt with the aftermath of war or a post-war era, and that’s why I think it’s fair to include Peaky Blinders. That and because it is fantastic. I really loved it and have to thank my friend Novroz for repeatedly writing about it. Besides it just proves a point. These days a lot of the best visual story telling isn’t shown in cinemas but on TV. And did I mention Nick Cave, Tom Waits and the White Stripes? I’ll come to that later.

Set in Birmingham in 1920, Peaky Blinders tells the story of a family of gangsters. They work pretty much mafia-style. They intimidate people, extort money against protection, fix races, use violence. Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson) is the oldest brother, Thomas (Cillian Murphy) the second, Jimmy is next and little Fin who is barely 5 years old is the youngest. There is also a sister, Ada, who’s in love with the communist Freddie Thorne. We never hear what happened to the mother, and the father, a thieving, whoring bastard, appears much later in the series. The only parent figure who is around constantly is aunt Polly (Helen McCrory). People assume that Arthur being the oldest is in charge but he’s far too dumb for that. The real boss of the Peaky Blinders is Thomas, assisted by aunt Polly. Thomas is the one with the business ideas, ready to strike, cold and calculating, and never shying away from violence. But he’s also loyal and courageous. Polly can be as cold and calculating as Thomas but she’s also diplomatic and keeps the family together on a more emotional level. Whenever there is conflict between the one or the other, she will reconcile them.

The world the Peaky Blinders live in is rough. It’s a world of poverty, delinquency, alcoholism and prostitution. Most of the money of the Shelby’s comes from bookmaking, contraband trade and robberies. The whole tragic story is set in motion when they steal a truckload of guns by mistake at the beginning of the series.

Winston Churchill sends for an Irish inspector who is an expert in the fight against the IRA. Churchill suspects that the guns are either in the hands of the IRA or the Communists. Both would be equally bad. The inspector is a self-righteous man, of those movie characters one really loves to hate – especially since he’s played by Sam Neill.

Thomas is intelligent and troubled. Like most of the men in the series he served in France and the trenches have changed him. He’s a broken man, who uses opium to fight his demons and distances himself from any feeling. Nightmares and visions of France haunt him like they haunt many others.

Music is very important for this series. The sound track is a mix of songs and original score by Nick Cave, the White Stripes and Tom Waits. Some sequences, notably those showing Thomas on his own or the “battle scenes”  are composed like stylish, gritty music video.

A gang like the Peaky Blinders is bound to have enemies and there are a lot of bloody confrontations with other gangs, bookmakers and the police. The power struggle between the inspector and Thomas makes is very suspenseful.

WWI is present all through this series. Many of the loyalties, the friendships and aversions in the series have a source in whether or not characters have served and whether or not they served together. The war left its mark on the society and on the people. The good and the bad in Thomas comes to a large extent from the war. He knows what courage under fire means. He’s been decorated twice. But he also knows that the war bruises and breaks you and leaves scars all over your body and your soul.

I’m not going to say  much more just this – watch it. I really loved Peaky Blinders and will watch it again. Before ending I should say that the series is a bit of a one man show. It wouldn’t have been as outstanding without Cillian Murphy‘s stellar performance, on the other hand it would be unfair not to mention that all the other actors are really good too.

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23 thoughts on “Peaky Blinders (2013) British Post-WWI Gangster Saga

  1. nem baj says:

    Interesting, thanks. I don’t think Downton Abbey did a good job in its evocation of the war. Across the pond HBO’s series Boardwalk Empire, which is also a tale of gangsters, also had some nice story bits about several of its characters being veterans from the trenches, at least in the first seasons…

    • Ah, yes, I’d forgotten Downton Abbey – but that’s one of those, which romanticises WWI, while there’s nothing romantic in what’s alluded to here.

      • nem baj says:

        I gave it a go… and dropped out after three episodes. Too many things I don’t like in the image and sound departments (not to mention the anthropology). Murphy is stunning, though.

        Downton Abbey is a shameless Tory soap opera, and funny too look at this way. The biggest trauma of WWI was that they hadn’t the house to themselves for years. :)

      • Everything I liked about it it seems.:) Not sure what about the anthropology you didn’t like. Of course it takes huge liberties with a lot, the story of the real Peaky Blinders etc. That’s not really what it is about. I still think they capture a slice of society that you still find in cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow …

      • nem baj says:

        Possibly :) I like the camera to move for a narrative reason, and music to be used also for the narrative – not only for looking and sounding ‘hip’ (which is out fashioned fast by definition). About the anthropology, an example with ‘Grace': nobody in Europe would sing in public with a head voice until decades later…

        I don’t mind the factual errors, but in my view when dealing with former generations one has to approach them as one would other cultures: in order to get to what we have in common, you have to acknowledge their otherness first. That’s not simply done with accurate costumes and architecture.

      • She’s not really singing head voice though. It’s pretty low, breast area.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    Thanks Caroline: I just bought this and it’s sitting here. Haven’t got to it yet but I’m thinking of starting it one weekend when I have enough spare time to watch the whole thing.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    Nick Cave’s music is on the Jack Irish DVD too.

  4. Bulletskill says:

    This was a fantastic series and I’d recommend it to anyone. The acting is first rate, the sets are superb for a television production and the score is of the highest order. The violence, while graphic at times, is part and parcel of the story and is never overpowering (though when it comes it is shocking). It’s as much a story of loyalty, betrayal and subterfuge than of gang wars – and it’s based on the story of a real Birmingham gang I believe.

    Quite why the BBC broadcast it on the “lesser” BBC2 channel instead of the main BBC1 is beyond me. Surely not everyone wants only to watch reality TV and bland game shows? I hope this series will get a proper airing on BBC! soon and I hear a second series is in the offing. I can’t wait!

  5. Novroz says:

    Great review, Caroline :)
    I am sooo glad you like it too.

    You know, as a Cillian fan…I didn’t think that one was a one man show, the story sort of focus on many people, yes they all centered on Thomas.

    Anyway, thanks for the link :)

  6. TBM says:

    I was angry with myself when I set up the recording wrong for this series. Novroz gave me plenty of time to get ready for it. Now I plan to watch it on DVD. Both of you can’t be wrong. And I love Nick Cave. I know a lot of people like to romanticize war, but I’m with you. This sounds like a much better depiction of the aftermath than Downton Abbey. Now I like Downton, but for different reasons.

    • I like Downton for different reasons too but it’s in the vein of a lot of series/movies/books who glorify WWI or take it as a base for a tragic love story.
      I’m sure you’ll like this. It’s really great. And if you like Nick Cave . . . Then all the more.

  7. the war movie buff says:

    I had heard of this recently on the ACG Forum ad was intrigued by the strength of the support. Now that you have added your support, I definitely will try to watch it.

  8. Thanks for introducing it, it sounds really interesting. One the the things I liked about the early seasons of Boardwalk Empire was the disconnect between the WWI veterans and everyone else. They were ruthless like the other gangsters, but incredibly screwed up, and completely lacking the support that veterans take for granted today.

    • I agree, not much support. Actually that type of support we know now started with Vietnam.
      I should watch Boardwalk Empire.
      There are a lot of interesting articles in UK newpapers about the authenticity and they did take a lot of liberties and gave it a glam appeal with the music but overall I think the feel is authentic. THomas is a amazing chacater and the WWI side works very well. If you get a chnace to watch it I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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