The gangster saga is the most romantic of the criminal sub-genres, and one of the oldest with roots evident in Shakespearean tragedy – what is Macbeth if not a gangster? For three seasons Stephen Knight’s Peaky Blinders has combined the glamour of period American gangster epics like The Godfather and The Untouchables with the grit and graft of a more British tradition.
Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 1 continues the saga of Birmingham-based crime family the Shelbys – known as the ‘Peaky Blinders’ due to their trademark of sewing razor blades into their caps. Episode 1 picked up immediately from the climax of series 3, which ended with the shock imprisonment of Arthur and John Shelby (Paul Anderson and Joe Cole), their Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) and nephew Micheal Grey (Finn Cole) due to the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of family leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy).
Tommy has made a deal to ultimately secure their freedom whilst reinforcing his power but his scheming has severe consequences which have now alienated the family, leaving him isolated – a lonely man in a vast mansion with only his servants and infant son for company.
Tommy appears to have reached the apex of the gangster’s journey, the moment where the antihero consolidates his power and is welcomed into mainstream society. However, all is not entirely going his way. Along with the estrangement of his brothers and Aunt Polly, problems include a threat of industrial action hitting the Shelby factories as union firebrand Jesse Eden (Charlie Murphy) threatens to bring female workers out on strike over equal pay.
All of which pales into insignificance when Tommy receives a written message from Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) a member of the American Mafia. The ‘greeting’ (extended to all the Shelbys) is not a friendly one, signalling the beginning of a vendetta against the family for the deaths of Angel and Vincente Changretta in series 3.
Tommy is a man both at war with the British establishment, and in thrall to it. In his ruthless drive to bring the Shelby family out of the underworld of illicit gambling and race fixing to become respectable factory owners, he has been willing to sacrifice everything dear to him. Not since he played a terrorist in the 2005 thriller Red Eye have Cillian Murphy’s startling blue eyes been so well employed as in Peaky Blinders; despite the actor’s slight frame those cold eyes burn through the screen, and he is more frightening the more softly spoken he becomes.
This episode begins and finishes dancing on a knife-edge of suspense and tension setting up what promises to become the most explosive and bloody Peaky series to date. Director David Caffrey doesn’t stray from the slick visual formula of the show, roaring twenties fashions and cars, sharp haircuts, industrial smog, slow motion, and an anachronistic alt-rock soundtrack. From the moment the familiar chimes of the series’ adopted theme – ‘Red Right Hand’ by Nick Cave and The Bad Seed – ring out, Peaky fans will be in raptures.
Did you tune in for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 1? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
WARNING: contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 2. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 1.
In episode 2 of Peaky Blinders‘ fourth series, the Shelby family face dark times. How dark? The familiar chime of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ is replaced as the theme tune, substituted for his song ‘The Mercy Seat’, which is sung from the point of view of a prisoner awaiting execution.
Some of the Shelby family escaped execution at the hand of the state at the beginning of the series, but now they have a Sicilian vendetta being waged against them and the mafia offers no last minute reprieves.
Following the delivery of Luca Changretta’s ‘black hand’ message to the Shelbys, the Italian/American gangster made good on his threat with an attack against the family leaving John Shelby (Joe Cole) dead and Aunt Polly’s son Micheal Grey (Finn Cole) seriously wounded. Tommy draws the family back together, bringing them home to the Birmingham streets where they own every cobble and know every face.
Even with a truce declared between the family, they are not at full strength. They have lost a brother, Aunt Polly is suffering the effects of a nervous breakdown, and Arthur Shelby needs more than a new haircut to show his head is back in the game. Recognising this, Tommy goes outside the family for support, enlisting the aid of Aberama Gold (Aidan Gillen). This move is not universally appreciated – Gold leads another Romany family but one that is feared in their own community for their history of stealing and cheating their own people.
Despite the action and violence, the standout scenes of this episode generate white-knuckle suspense not with flying bullets, but with words. Steven Knight writes terrific dialogue and characters that keep bringing in A-list acting talent.
In one, Gold attempts to intimidate Tommy buy trying to buy Charlie Strong’s ironworks. The situation is resolved in electrifying fashion when Tommy suggests a modest wager. Heads, Gold gets the yard. Tails, Tommy has sex with Gold’s youngest daughter. Gillen narrows his eyes and rolls all the sibilants in his dialogue like a hissing serpent about to attack. Has Tommy signed a deal with the devil?
Tommy fares less well when he comes face to face with Luca Changretta. The two men spar only verbally, but Changretta easily parries every strike and seems able to anticipate every feint. Brody goes to the full Brando here, the toothpicks he constantly chews on seem to be formed from the scenery he is chewing up. The scene ends with Tommy saying “welcome to Birmingham Mister Changretta.” The game has just begun.
If all this sounds loaded with machismo, it is more complex. While Tommy rules the Shelby family as a patriarchy, he is diminished without Aunt Polly’s support. Tommy suffers the same hot-headedness that afflicts all the Shelby brothers. He needs Polly’s cooler and more analytical point of view.
It has been distressing to see Polly suffering mental health issues, induced by her near execution, in this series – but she emerges strengthened. Helen McCrory is always a joy to watch, and one has to wonder: will we ever see Polly take control of the Peaky Blinders?
Did you tune in for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 2? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Spoilers for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 3 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 2 here.
The woman’s role in a gangster saga is usually thankless. At best, like Diane Keaton in The Godfather, they are wives and girlfriends, placed on pedestals and left out of the business. At worst, commodities to be traded. Showgirls and prostitutes who are the business.
Peaky Blinders portrays a dark, masculine world dripping with misogyny, but one with significant female characters. Along with the violence of organised crime and establishment corruption, the series also takes into account the experience and shifting status of women post First World War.
Writer Stephen Knight greatly expands the female roles in series 4, making Shelby sibling Ada (Sophie Rundle), Arthur Shelby’s pious wife Linda (Kate Phillips), and Tommy’s secretary Lizzie Stark (Natasha O’Keeffe) considerably more interesting.
This is a world governed by fists and bullets. To survive it, the women must be as tough and as devious as the men. Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) led the Peaky Blinders when the brothers were at war. That she was demoted on their return sticks in her craw.
Linda Shelby appeared to have tamed Arthur with her religious devotion, but now that the family is at war and Arthur has his hair cut and blood up, her piety has gone out the window and she is using any means necessary to keep her husband alive, leading to a torrid sex scene in the Shelby factory boardroom.
With the attention of the Shelby men on the Mafia threat, the women seize their chance to move into key positions in the business. Even Linda offers her services making bets. When Polly asks her what God would think she curtly replies: “I’m not the one doing the gambling. I’m just taking the bets”.
Perhaps Tommy’s only sincere ally among the women is his secretary, and occasional lover, Lizzie. Once a prostitute, their relationship appears strictly professional. Among her secretarial duties, she books prostitutes for Tommy. Lizzie clearly has real feelings for him, but as a non-Shelby she is on the outside and regarded with suspicion and condescension.
A new player is Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy) a firebrand trade unionist fomenting unrest among Tommy’s workforce. Tommy provokes a strike to create chaos in Birmingham, raising a fog of war to hide the bloody war they are fighting. Eden has found out details of Tommy’s past before he came back from the war (“no one came back” Tommy remarks). These include a sweet but doomed romance, and even a rumour he had once joined the Communist Party.
In turn, Tommy has discovered the love of Eden’s life had fought at Passchendaele. He had returned shell-shocked and took his own life. Tommy uses this information against her, but in reminding him of the softer person he once was Eden may have let a glimmer of light back into his dark heart. The question is, in the battle with the merciless Changretta family, will this be a fatal weakness?
Over the past episodes Knight has carefully placed his chess pieces on the board. With Tommy and the family feuding, Changretta was able to take a knight, John Shelby. However, now the game has begun in earnest. Episode 3 sees the opponents manoeuvre their pieces, each endeavouring to place them anticipating their endgame. There is a thrilling suspense sequence in which Changretta henchmen move on Arthur, but the real thrills come from Knight’s razor-sharp dialogue.
Did you tune in for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Spoilers for Peaky Blinders series 4 episodes 4 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 3 here.
Tellingly, episode 4 sees Luca Changretta tell one of his well-tailored goons ‘everything here is about the war.’
It has become evident that this series is about facing the past. The killing of Angel and Vincente Changretta in series 3 brings Luca Changretta’s (Adrien Brody) vendetta upon the Shelby family. At the end of the previous series Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) made a deal with agents of the crown putting family members at risk. The gamble paid out, but has turned Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) against him. She has now made a secret deal with Luca to spare her family in return for giving up Tommy.
The shadow of the great war falls over Peaky Blinders as thickly as soot from Birmingham’s factories lies over the city. Tommy, older brother Arthur (Paul Anderson), and now deceased younger brother John all served in the war and all returned changed men.
We have never been given insight into what Tommy was like before his wartime experience, but Jessie Eden’s revelations in episode 3 painted a picture of a very different man. One who was in love, one who was committed to social and political causes.
That wartime experience is most obvious on a practical level. Tommy knows how to lead men, set up an ambush, and can pull a trigger without emotion. Nevertheless, there are deeper and more complex effects. Having seen death on an industrial scale, he has rejected his former beliefs and is obsessed with accumulating power and forcing his way into the upper-class establishment that he saw were insulated from the effects the war which wasted working-class men by the shovel load.
When beleaguered Shelby factory manager Niall Devlin (Graeme Hawley) suggests Tommy is a class traitor he replies “I am not a traitor to my class, I am just an extreme example of what a working man can achieve.” Secretly it is clear that Tommy does feel guilt – on one hand, he has engineered a general strike that is causing misery to working people. On the other, he is secretly using Shelby funds to open orphanages. He is a contradictory man.
Tommy is losing the war with Changretta. His experience in military strategy may well be a hindrance. Changretta doesn’t play by those rules. He seems to have an understanding of Tommy’s tactics that allow him to predict his moves.
The hiring of Aberama Gold (Aidan Gillen) is another dangerous play by Tommy, but may yet be significant. Gold doesn’t play by the rules either, operating in a guerrilla fashion: “we’re gypsies, and we are already underground.” So far Tommy hasn’t once got the drop on Changretta, but Gold is able to trap him in an ambush he is lucky to escape – or is he? Could Gold be playing both sides against each other?
Lightening the tone, Tommy also called on an old ‘friend’ for background on Changretta’s movements and dealings – every Peaky fan’s favourite Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy). Hardy is writer Steven Knight’s big gun, used sparingly because he makes a big noise. Brutal as Peaky Blinders is, it is also frequently hilarious, and Hardy has a ball delivering Knight’s most profane dialogue.
With only two episodes remaining, Changretta is holding four aces and Tommy has a dead man’s hand. What are the chances he can convert that into a straight flush?
Did you tune in for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Spoilers for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 5 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 4 here.
Mafia boss Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) has been constantly ahead of Tommy and the Peaky Blinders. His ‘soldiers’ gunned down John Shelby in front of his home. With inside help, they made an (unsuccessful) attempt on Arthur Shelby’s life. Luca has also made a deal with Aunt Polly to give up Tommy, and in exchange the rest of the Shelby family, and especially her son Micheal Gray, are to be spared. When Changretta himself infiltrates Micheal’s hospital pulling the trigger on an empty barrel, it is a clear message to Polly that no one is untouchable.
Having written Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) into a tight spot over the previous four episodes of this series, Peaky Blinders creator Stephen Knight took a bold step with the exciting opening this episode. Changretta and a brace of his goons pursue Tommy into a Birmingham tenement complex. Tommy ambushes the ambushers and a tense gun battle erupts. Polly has doubled crossed Changretta.
How has this happened? How have the Peaky Blinders outmanoeuvred the New York Mafia?
That Changretta is an arrogant man is no surprise. The meek may one day inherit the earth, but as Fredo Corleone would attest, they rarely have great success as Mafiosi. Clearly, he has underestimated Tommy Shelby. Knight has expertly used the glamour of the black hat wearing Thompson-wielding hoodlum to fool the audience also. The Shelbys’ Romany blood is just as thick as that of the Sicilians’, and Polly and Tommy have been playing a long game.
If Changretta has a weakness, it is his seemingly unquenchable thirst for revenge. His men are clearly uncomfortable in England – the horror with which one henchman asked “what is spotted dick?” in a previous episode was hilarious, provoking a vicious rebuke from his boss with a scone.
His pact with Polly a failure, Changretta now tries to bring Camden’s finest foul-mouthed Jewish booze runner Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) into his web in this episode. Changretta knows that Solomons wants to get his rum into New York speakeasies, something he can help with. Solomons doesn’t exactly love Tommy Shelby, who is also embarking on a rival gin business, but in his impatience for vengeance Changretta too quickly agrees to a deal. Alfie takes Luca’s lack of haggling as an insult, but more importantly, he sees this as confirmation that Luca intends to kill everyone as he has no intention of honouring any deals.
In fact, there are now signs that Luca Changretta may not be the real conflict concerning Tommy Shelby. The centrepiece of this episode is not the ten-minute shootout that opens it. Instead, it is a conversation over dinner about politics.
Tommy and union leader Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy) have been circling each other for several episodes now. Apparently at different ends of the political spectrum, she is a communist committed to the struggle of the working class, while he is a factory owner and gangster. However, they have shared experiences. Both have lost the loves of their lives, both have been affected by the Great War. There is a potential worker’s revolution brewing. Tommy explains that he views everything with a bookies’ eye. He is looking for the best horse to back – the King’s horse or the workers’ horse.
It isn’t clear yet which horse Tommy is going to back, but his heart surely favours the revolution. Will his head ultimately back the King’s horse? And will Luca Changretta be able to finally cash the cheque his black hand has written in Shelby blood?
Several episodes before, when Changretta made his ill-fated deal with Aunt Polly, he remarked that she was “dancing with me”. When Tommy plays Jessie music she asks “so we’re going to dance?”
‘I think so’ is Tommy’s reply. Will this relationship also end in betrayal? And if so, for whom?
Did you tune in for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 5? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Spoilers for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 6 below. Still catching up? Read Stuart’s review of episode 5 here.
In this final episode of the current series of Peaky Blinders, director David Caffrey gets to really cut loose, crafting a large scale set-piece in which Luca Changretta’s assassins closed in on both Tommy and Arthur Shelby during a boxing match.
Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) had been approached by Changretta in the previous episode and it is now clear that he has acquiesced to his demands, allowing Luca to place his men at ringside. The depth of the Sicilian commitment to vendetta is demonstrated by the men being circumcised so as not to raise suspicion if Tommy insists on a strip search – which he does.
In the Shelby corner, underdog boxer Bonnie Gold (Jack Rowan). In Alfie Solomons’ corner, Goliath (Dino Kelly). This fight was expertly cross-cut with a literal fight to the death between Arthur and Changretta’s men. Tommy heading backstage after his drug-addled older brother added another layer of suspense. This was Peaky Blinders at its most cinematic, stylish and violent with an operatic sweep that draws comparisons to Hitchcock or De Palma.
In the aftermath, writer Stephen Knight unleashed a series of twists as Tommy’s plan finally became clear. Before the fight, Solomons compared the unevenly matched boxers with the Peaky Blinders facing the might of the American Mafia. “There is a fight out there between big and small”. Big always wins was Alfie’s contention. Tommy knows Solomons is right, but his solution is simple – he finds a bigger fish. A whale in Chicago who would dearly like to swallow the Changretta family’s business whole.
Knight daringly dropped the hammer on the Changretta plot halfway through the episode to allow a haunting code and to direct us into an irresistible hook for the next series.
Forced to take a holiday, Tommy takes up golfing. This series has been about the sins of the past coming back to haunt the present. Tommy has a nervous breakdown flinging his club into a lake to the strains of Radiohead. Whether it is his war experience, his history of violence, his personal losses or, as Polly suggests, something in his Shelby blood, Tommy cannot find contentment at rest. In a sense, he is a victim of his own gypsy curse – a man driven to conquer the world, but unable ever to enjoy the spoils. Like the Macedonian king Alexander, he weeps surveying his kingdom.
In a previous episode review, I suggested that Changretta may not have been the real prize in Tommy’s sights. With the mobster dealt with, the slowly developing parallel plot exploring revolution and class division came back to the fore. Tommy is again playing both sides, his poker face inscrutable as he convinces both revolutionary and establishment contacts he is their agent. Tommy is about to enter a world just as treacherous as organised crime: politics.
This has been a tremendous return to form following a sluggish third season. While Adrien Brody was a disappointing villain, giving an irritatingly mannered performance, Cillian Murphy and Helen McCrory found previously unexplored facts in Tommy Shelby and Aunt Polly’s characters. Peaky Blinders series 4 deftly mixed genre pleasure with political and social depth to make a thrillingly sour cocktail.
Did you tune in for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 6? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!