Handsome but hollow, “Peaky Blinders” is another one of those classy-looking British imports that networks and streaming services (in this case, Netflix) are using to help keep their shelves stocked. Yet while that worked extremely well with the recent “Happy Valley,” despite the meticulous period trappings this feels like a slightly wan wannabe – in part because there’s scant connection with any of the characters. Featuring Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill in the marquee roles, it’s a respectable but chilly effort, fine for those who choose to invest the time but hardly a loss should one turn a blind eye.
In one sense, the program approximates the British answer to “Boardwalk Empire,” coming as it does on the heels of World War I. But if you have the first, frankly, there’s not much need for the second, and the tone is actually somewhat closer to “Gangs of New York,” offering an interesting window into an under-chronicled period, yes, but, much like Cinemax’s “The Knick,” practically daring all but the most intrepid viewers to stick with it.
The idea sounds better than the execution: Set in Birmingham, England in 1919, Murphy plays World War I veteran Tommy Shelby. World weary and plagued by vivid nightmares from the war (a device that needs a good long vacation), he presides over his family, who lead the gang responsible for the show’s title, a name derived from the razor blades they sport under the brims of their caps (and brandish with gory precision).
Involved in various illicit activities, Tommy sees an opportunity to expand the family’s power when he acquires a crate of guns, whose whereabouts have prompted Winston Churchill – then a young government official – to dispatch Neill’s Chief Inspector Campbell to retrieve them.
With various constituencies – including the IRA, communists and rival gangs – eager to acquire the weapons, Tommy sets plans in motion to gain leverage from the contraband. Campbell, meanwhile, exhibits his own ruthlessness — a Javert type, eager to please those back home.
Yet while Murphy brings a steely-eyed intensity to the role, the rest of the family barely registers, and even Tommy comes across as a fainter echo of Michael Pitt’s U.S. war vet Jimmy in “Boardwalk.” The same applies to Annabelle Wallis as the woman with the potential to thaw Tommy’s hardened heart.
Certainly, there’s ample drama to be found in this particularly tumultuous moment in British history, and some will no doubt appreciate the unhurried pacing. But too much about “Peaky Blinders” (created by writer Steven Knight, directed by Otto Bathurst and Tom Harper, and counting Caryn Mandabach among its producers) is steeped in heavy-handed flourishes, from the contemporary score to the use of slow motion surrounding the fight sequences.
Netflix has two seasons (or a dozen episodes) available, with the second flight to premiere in November. Still, for aficionados of a genre as rich in tradition and options as gangster fare, a weak-tea alternative – even armed with razor blades – doesn’t quite cut it.