Peaky Blinders: can Cillian Murphy and the gang still cut it? Here's our verdict

Review: The Irish actor is both compelling and unsettling as the fifth season begins

Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders: a Mack the Knife given subtler edge, beautiful on the outside, hollowed out within

Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders: a Mack the Knife given subtler edge, beautiful on the outside, hollowed out within

 

How would Peaky Blinders (BBC One, Sunday), the ineffably stylish historical crime drama, know when it has peaked? The question nudges playfully through the viscerally exciting and royally entertaining first episode of a season that begins with an infamous occasion: the Wall Street crash of 1929 that will usher in the Great Depression.

But even though the Shelby family are leveraged to the brim of their caps in shares, their leader, Tommy (Cillian Murphy), already sees his own stock beginning to plunge. In rural Birmingham he gives an impromptu eulogy for his horse, which we soon discover he has shot. Before briefly considering putting himself out of his misery, Tommy notes an animal who “got tired of the pasture, couldn’t take the peace and quiet, gave up on life and is now free”. That is the threat also facing Tommy, whose mind bucks and kicks in periods of quiet. There’s really no rest for the wicked.

Nor is there any risk of flogging a dead horse with the series, a slow-burner that is now, at the start of the fifth series, a phenomenon. Just as the Shelby family’s enterprises have grown and grown, from gun-running and race-fixing initially, through international expansion and, cheeringly, politics, we may have reached peak Peaky Blinders, which has just moved from BBC Two to a prime-time slot on BBC One, as well as becoming a streaming hit, on both sides of the Atlantic, on Netflix.

Thankfully, it is still a sound investment. From its lush visual style and unswervingly cool soundtrack to its razor-sharp dialogue, the show is a model of constant propulsion. The series’ new director, Anthony Byrne, deploys a fitting signature shot, following characters tightly as they surge into action, or awaiting them, from an awestruck distance, as they sweep from a fresh plan through streets of smoke and spitting sparks.

That Tommy is another difficult man – powerful, supercompetent and deeply haunted; the staple of serious dramas since The Sopranos – can be laid on a little thick. “What do I have to do to make people listen to me?” he complains, let down in New York, disobeyed in London and now distrusted by his child. One obvious answer is: be Cillian Murphy. In the role, the actor’s magnetic focus and ageless, frankly eerie good looks are both compelling and unsettling: a Mack the Knife given subtler edge, beautiful on the outside, hollowed out within.

That corresponds with the neat hypocrisy of the Shelbys’ enterprise, best conveyed by Paul Anderson’s Arthur, the elder sibling, who is made chairman of the family company but knows his more natural role is that of doorman, or Helen McCrory’s Polly, whose deadpan response to one patronising comment in the boardroom exploits the fullest withering potential of a Brummie accent. “We’ve established that ladies are decorative.” 

Although he would never show it, Tommy’s two-facedness is more enjoyable, espousing socialism in the House of Commons, flagrant capitalism in his “conventional” business empire, and a flexible free-market logic in his hit jobs. That Tommy barely seems inconvenienced by any setback – outmanoeuvring the annihilation of his stocks, a short-changing effort from a corrupt, supercilious judge, the snooping of a journalist – suggests a kind of omnipotent fantasy, though, which is more entertaining than satisfying. “No, I’m not God,” Tommy tells someone, rather modestly. “Not yet.” Now that sounds like a plan.

Peaky Blinders continues on BBC One at 9.30pm today

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