Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

Dreamy Reality – On the Key Scenes in Peaky Blinders

“This place is under new management by order of the Peaky Blinders!” Thus shouts Arthur Shelby covered in blood and bruises in possibly one of the goriest scenes in Peaky Blinders yet, after they have just successfully battled their way into ownership of the Eden Club in Camden Town.
Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders
Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders

The Shelby clan don’t quite pull off the Madchester swagger, but by god do they strut. The Peaky Blinders are the cock of the walk, and don’t let Sabini, Alfie Solomons or Major Chester Campbell tell you otherwise. Even the Shelby women are not to be messed with. Aunt Polly, Ada, Esmee: all hard-boiled and relentless in their own respective ways. And Tommy Shelby, the leader of the pack? He is the new Gene Hunt, despite being on the other side of the law-and-order divide. He smokes, he drinks, he beats the hell out of people, he kills without batting and eyelid, and above all he is the ruthless mastermind behind it all.

Nothing seems capable of shaking Tommy Shelby. No spanners thrown in the works can let him deviate from his path or alter his plans, no threat can disturb his calm demeanour – although when he narrowly escapes his execution by the Ulster Red Hand at the end of season two and stumbles face first into a ditch in a barren field, he finally cracks. But only just. And even though Tommy Shelby is a bad, bad boy, he has many a viewer rooting for him to ultimately get the girl.

Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders
Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders provides an interesting portrayal of British society during the 1920s. It deviates from the average period drama where the upper echelons of society are upheld as examples of dignity and high culture, or where the plight of the noble and deserving poor is being romanticised. Peaky Blinders instead faces the realities of the time head on. Practically every man alive is suffering from some form of PTSD as a result of the Great War. The Shelby brothers are unapologetically shown trying to cope with their respective traumas: Tommy seeking relief in opium, Arthur finding an outlet in unrestrained violence. It also shows that whatever bonds of brotherhood the Great War may have created between men of all backgrounds, during the 1920s those bonds are becoming increasingly tenuous.

Peaky Blinders provides an interesting portrayal of British society during the 1920s. It deviates from the average period drama where the upper echelons of society are upheld as examples of dignity and high culture, or where the plight of the noble and deserving poor is being romanticised.

Other fractures in British society are shown without any window-dressing. The Irish question is as messed up as it will ever be. The Peaky Blinders find themselves caught up in that quagmire without having a choice in the matter. The police is corrupt beyond belief, and gangs like the Blinders seem to be just as pervasive as the Cosa Nostra in Italy. Scenes of heavy and polluting industries situated amidst grim-looking terraced housing and grinding poverty in inner-city Birmingham, sit awkwardly next to views of opulence at the horse races and the associated jet set of the roaring twenties.

Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders
Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders

Both the soundtrack and the cinematography for the key scenes of the series are outstanding. Opting for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds lyrics as the lead music is a masterstroke, even though the purists will probably argue that it is not contemporaneous. In these moments, the streets of Birmingham truly look and sound like the gates of hell with their soot-stained walls, the charcoal flakes floating in the air, the ever present rain drumming down and the uncontrollable flames shooting out of the vents that keep the industries running.

The sparse use of colour and light in these surroundings signposts that something momentous is about to happen. Watching these key scenes, it feels as if time is slowing down, as if magic is suddenly tangible in the air, as if we have suddenly entered a dream state and we are still unsure whether it is going to be a good or a bad one. There is the scene with the girl blowing red powder over Tommy Shelby’s horse as a blessing. There is Grace walking down the street in her green dress, when she is about to meet Tommy for the first time. There is the fire burning in the smithy Tommy walks away from after he has killed a man on behalf of an Irish splinter group. There is the light of the station lamps dispersed by the mist when Major Campbell first arrives in Birmingham, and when Grace shoots him upon her departure from the city. Dialogue is sparse or non-existent in these moments, and having the visuals do the work of the narrative is a daring move. But it is one that pays off. As soon as a hint of colour or a spark of light arrives, the viewer anxiously awaits what on earth is going to happen next.

Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders
Still from the TV series Peaky Blinders

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