Flip a Coin

An ink-black thoroughbred paces on cobblestoned streets, hooves clacking nicely. Such a proud head. A very unlikely scenario, since handsome race horses don’t belong in that kind of environment. Very industrial revolution-like. The smoke, the pollution, the darkened walls of sorrowful-looking little homes piled up onto one another without yards, without any green in between. No trees, no shrubs; every bit of nature’s color banished from view. The horse’s appearance sends everybody scattered; tiny ants running for shelter, from kids to grownups, men and women. A ghost would not have spooked them so badly.

Since I read Black Beauty when I was a child, dark horses became a favorite. I find nothing scary about them, but what I failed to grasp in those first two minutes of show was that not the horse but its rider was to blame. The man is riding bareback and seems perfectly at ease in doing so. He is slim, face hidden by a tweed cap, slightly hunched over. To add to my curiosity, a Chinese fortune-teller, a very young girl, blows some red powder on the horse’s muzzle. A spell, for good luck.

As questions multiply even before five minutes of show have elapsed, the same rider is now walking the same cobble streets; it’s daylight. He is smoking, walks with his head down, still half-hidden by the woolen cap, as if ready to declare war on the world. Everybody along the way salutes him by the name with a mix of respect and fear. He barely acknowledges them. He throws the half-consumed cigarette away and enters a small house. The living room is narrow but well furnished. Maybe too furnished, too busy, cramped. Flowery wallpaper. A little boy is sitting in front of the fireplace, smoking. The man says hi to him in a friendly way. (His father? His uncle?) The boy is visibly alarmed; the man slightly amused. Ten years of age is too young for cigarettes, the man observes. I’ll be eleven in one week, justifies the boy, getting rid of the cigarette anyway. What’s going on? asks the man, dropping the issue. Art’s as mad as hell, goes the little boy and with that comment I made up my mind. The show got me; I had no idea but I was just about to become a huge fan. Arthur is my nephew’s name. The man opens up a set of double doors in the back of the room and that changes everything. A new world invades the screen – it’s a loud, crowded, hectic, convoluted reality – he’s got a huge gambling operation in his living room!

The boy and the man are Finn and Thomas Shelby respectively. Thomas – the family’s leader – a war hero who fought in France and threw his two gallantry medals in the river – only that with his very thick Birmingham accent and vocabulary, the river is actually referred to as “ the cut” – something like a canal. Are you impressed by medals?, this war hero will ask his girlfriend one day, in season II. Felt like he was asking us, the audience. We know what carnage WW I was and the show spares no viewer of bloody scenes, as brothers Tom and Art Shelby are constantly plagued by gruesome memories. Turns out, because Art fought in France madness is his natural state of mind.

The family in the movie, the Shelbys, is composed by four brothers (Thomas, Arthur, John, and Finn), one sister (Ada) and their very charismatic and strong Aunt Polly (short for Elizabeth – actually Elizabeth Gray, nee Shelby). As the only sister among four brothers, Ada Shelby is said to be as pretty as an angel, however as wild as her brothers, and madly in love with a communist agitator, Freddy, who also fought in France.

Produced in England by BBC (filmed in Birmingham and Liverpool) and distributed in America by Netflix, Peaky Blinders is awesome. A word of caution though: this is definitely not a show for kids. The brutality of certain scenes made me stand up quite a few times – I had to walk to the kitchen or something, or else just closed my eyes… The Peaky Blinders were a gang of organized crime, led by the Shelby family in Birmingham in those post-WW I days. “They were one of the urban youth gangs in the era, which were among the earliest of modern street subcultures”, according to Wikipedia. The year is 1919 – my grandpa Jose would have been eight; younger than Finn Shelby…

Tom Shelby is the brains in the family and often enters intense arguments with Aunt Polly, who managed the family business while the boys were away. With them back now, she resents the loss of her authority and decision power. The Shelbys are half gipsy, feared and respected in the working class neighborhood where everyone is employed by a foundry. Oh, don’t mess with him/her – he/she is a Shelby… They do everything illegal under the sun, from bootlegging to fixing horse races, but Thomas’s dream is to form a legitimate business and be wealthy and respectable – the Shelby Company Limited – where all brothers will be partners. They often hold meetings to discuss their decisions and the dialogues in those meetings are a perfect mix of strategy, intelligence, and irony. The dialogues in this movie are a piece of work, speaking of conversations. The answers are never what you expect and sometimes there are no answers. Nothing is predictable, like life itself. Thomas speaks very little and briefly – he does not like to talk about himself or his business and prefers short sentences. Not a large man he is, but with a deep voice. He often leaves everybody wondering what he’s thinking – including me. It’s great when a movie does that – it excites the viewer’s imagination, makes you think.

In this dog-eat-dog sub-world of Birmingham, the Shelbys could not care less for politics and politicians– all they want is to make money. If that means bribing the local cops and physically blinding members of a local hostile gipsy group, so what? However, the Shelbys are not invincible – they pay dearly for each of the deadly sins they commit. It’s right in the first episode of season I that Thomas Shelby comes across an illegal load of guns meant for the IRA – the Irish Republican Army. He did not ask for that, it fell from sheer heaven (or hell) right into his hands and he is not a man of letting opportunities go by.untouched. Those guns, as Tom Shelby sees them, are his passport to higher ground.

As businessman-like as Tom Shelby may appear most of the time, If you get him cross he’ll blind you with the thin razor kept in the brim of his woolen cap; the Peaky Blinders trademark. You blink and they cut your face for life, so fast you would feel the blood run before you even experience any pain… But when it’s all said and done, Tom Shelby is a master in reading people – that is his ultimate skill; the one thing that keeps him alive more often that the razor in his hat.

The actor who breathes life into the character of Thomas Shelby is Irish– Cillian Murphy. He plays the villain more often that the hero and is outstanding. You may have seem him in Inception, Batman Begins, The Red Eye, The Dark Knight, The Wind that Shakes the Barley – to mention a few titles only. There is something very sinister about his acclaimed blue eyes. Strange, peculiar, ghostly. Full of angles, at times  his face looks like that of an android. Then he smiles – he smiles very little as Tom Shelby – and becomes incredibly human again. Forty years old, father of two boys, Murphy was supposed to have been a lawyer but chose the acting career instead – thank God. In Thomas Shelby’s skin he has scars from the war all over his chest and back and is constantly haunted by traumas of their battles against the Germans in France, in tunnels. He can only sleep after smoking some opium and even then his sleep is full of nightmares.

Tommy, as his aunt Polly calls him, loves horses – prior to the war all he ever wanted was to work with horses – and horse whispering (in Romani) runs in his gipsy gangster blood. It’s the strangest thing ever – the words sound like Portuguese but you keep waiting for them to make sense in your ears,  for the meaning to reach your brain, and waiting and waiting… And then the talking is over and you are left without understanding a single word (of course, there were subtitles).  It feels like you will be able to figure out the words because their sound is so familiar… But no, false alarm… I don’t speak Romani.

Ah, and the haircuts! All Peaky Blinders wear the same – head shaved from the ear-line down and hair kept long on the top of the head. I had never seen that hairstyle before but it is known how ignorant I am of the WW I period in Europe and the world in general. Here’s how Wikipedia summarizes the Peaky Blinders’ looks and style:

“(…) the name Peaky Blinders is popularly said to derive from the practice of stitching razor blades into the peak of their flat caps, which could then be used as weapons (…) a more mundane explanation is that “peakys” was a common nickname for popular flat caps with peaks. The gangs were known to have a distinctive clothing style, wearing the peaked caps and cravats (…) while a line of brass buttons down the front gave added distinction. Their style of dress was similar to that of the Manchester-based gangs of the same period known as Scuttlers.”

The Peaky Blinders’ empire thrived round the time when the IRA began organizing itself as a military/terrorist group, to liberate Ireland from England, and not surprisingly, Thomas Shelby will also find a bone to pick with the Irish Republican Army. He doesn’t like them; they don’t like the Shelbys. And if rival gipsy gangs, the “coppers”, and Irish revolutionaries were not enough, oh well, Sir Winston Churchill sends in a special police officer from Belfast to clean up Birmingham… Trouble is coming, in Art Shelby’s prophetic words.

The police chief is played by Sam Neil, the actor in The Piano, Jurassic Park, The Hunt for the Red October, and so many other movies. He is the best villain ever; twice as cruel and dirty as any gangster can be. He speaks of honor but has none; he preaches about loyalty but is always the first to break his word. I just loved to hate Sam Neil’s Major Chester Campbell. Campbell, for all the good work he did in Belfast for the Crown, never went to the war – never fought in France, never got any medals. He doesn’t have the soldier’s heart Thomas and Arthur Shelby share. Campbell is so malign and corrupt it will turn your stomach. Born in New Zealand, Sam Neil had to work out a Belfast accent. His coach was actor Liam Neeson. In the end, production had to tell Neil to go easy on his newly-acquired thick Irish accent as the show would be also marketed in America.

Funny how we end up rooting for the bad guys in these movies. Campbell is after all the police, working for the king and directly answering to Mr. Churchill. So now Tom Shelby, the gangster, is my hero; how did that happen? He drinks a lot but is never drunk, he smokes a lot but always looks fresh and well-scrubbed; elegantly dressed, even when walking the filthy alleys of Birmingham around the foundry. As he walks down those dreary streets, the foundry’s many furnaces glow behind large windows and arched doorways never disturbing him. Tommy Shelby walks looking down, so intently, always smoking; the ideas burning in his mind just like the red and orange of the furnaces along his way. Perhaps a metaphor for his risky life style.

To recap, we have the admirable underdog, the evil cop, fights with IRA and groups of organized crime (Solomons, the Jewish and Sabini, the Italians) for the control of the races in London. Plus  family dramas and disputes. Not only has Thomas Shelby to protect his own life – always at risk – but also the lives of his hard to control brother (Art Shelby is a loose cannon; his hair style is even more prominent than Thomas’s and he drinks twice as much in his post-war depression) and the hot-tempered aunt Polly. Brother John Shelby lost his wife to the latest influenza pandemic and has a bunch of kids – he needs to find them a mother and wants to marry a local well-known prostitute named Lizzie.

In a great demonstration of his power of persuasion and strategy, Thomas convinces John not to marry Lizzie. The scene between Thomas and Lizzie is one of the most astute dialogues I’ve ever seen in a movie. Instead, Thomas forces John to marry the youngest daughter of the enemy gipsy leader, ending their conflicts – at least for now. In the beginning John kicked and screamed but as soon as he saw the girl – Esme – he calmed down. The Peaky Blinders are stronger now, with the addition of dozens of gipsy men. Thomas Shelby is a splendid chess player – always anticipating everyone’s moves and keeping his own concealed. That’s what I do, Arthur. I think so you don’t have to, as he tells his brother.

As soon as John’s marital status is assured and peace achieved with the Lees, chaos explodes on another family front.   Sister Ada’s husband Freddy, was thrown in jail on account of his communist protests a few days before their baby is expected. Can Thomas get Freddy out and what would the price be?

With this much going on, what’s missing?

Romance, of course! And that came into Thomas Shelby’s life in the form of a blonde bartender that likes to sing Irish songs and does not mind a few dangerous missions. Her name is Grace and she holds a great secret (production gave her a new nose in season II, after her secret was revealed). Grace just found herself a job at the local pub, The Garrison, where the Shelbys meet often to discuss business and strategy, with Art always mad as hell, talking too much and too loud. The moment Thomas Shelby looked at her we all knew where that was going. Grace fell for him even harder. Their romance takes time to ignite and when it does is of such a delicacy, in the middle of such a harsh environment, that it breaks the viewer’s heart. Season I ends with Thomas asking himself what to do about Grace. And just how he decides? The same way he used to make decisions before the war – by flipping a coin!

Peaky Blinders got better and better at each new episode (even when I had no stomach to watch some of the violent scenes) and I am itching to write about how the last episode of season II ends so spectacular it was, which I won’t; wont; spoil the fun its many twists and turns brought about. For the first time in a long while I watched the final episode of a show twice, just to make sure I had not missed anything of importance as the accent can be tricky in my ears. That and because I enjoyed it so much I had to watch it again! I would give everybody Emmy awards, from best actor to wardrobe, music (phenomenal songs, very dark and touching, probably by Irish singers and groups I never heard of, played at the most appropriate moments of the movie; I’d love to be able to purchase the soundtrack CD), photography, makeup, direction, production, screenplay, you name it… They did everything – everything – right. How many times can we say this about a movie or show? I wish I could write something half as good one day… Can’t wait for season III!

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