Biweekly Binge: Cillian Murphy and a star’s charisma
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
Last week the first poster of Christopher Nolan’s upcoming film Oppenheimer dropped with a release date of July 21, 2023. It stars Cillian Murphy as the titular physicist and one of the frontmen in the creation of the atomic bomb. Cillian Murphy despite being a frequent collaborator with Nolan has never headlined a major role in any of their projects together. This will be the first and it’s a gargantuan role for one of the best actors who is not known for his star persona and screen presence, something he possesses a great deal of. He brings both to the screen whenever he appears, his chiselled face and natural grace lending any role a big screen quality. Ironically, Murphy’s best and biggest role belongs to the smaller screen—as Thomas Shelby in BBC and Netflix drama Peaky Blinders.
In Nolan’s Dunkirk, Murphy played a nameless role simply credited as Shivering Soldier, an army man overwhelmed by the deaths and mutilations of war, his future life already altered even before making out of the battlefield. In Peaky Blinders, a show created and written by Steven Knight, Thomas Shelby too is a decorated veteran having served during the Great War, at Somme. He returns to his Romani working class family—his two brothers and best friends served along with him too—in Birmingham, all of them suffering from either alcoholism or different degrees of PTSDs. But Thomas Shelby is a man on a mission. He looks around Small Heath, the working class neighbourhood of Birmingham with its factories and manufacturing units and how his brethren is looked down upon. At a time of great upheaval, Thomas Shelby takes it upon himself to uplift the family both in terms of wealth as well as social class, beginning with betting, illegal at first and licensed later, racing and manufacturing automobiles to selling liquor.
Peaky Blinders which concluded its final season on Netflix this year is an epic that charts the class war in post-war UK when the underclass awakens to communism and socialism, the IRA is in its nascent but influencial stages and the aristocrats go through a churn, nothing revolutionary but more of a nudge. Murphy’s Shelby plots a growth path for the big family, derogatively looked down as ‘gypsies’, taking on the local bourgeoisie and power centres like the police force and gradually moving to London, the Jewish and Italian mafia and all the way to Westminster Abbey. Peaky Blinders employs great camerawork, compelling family dynamics, musical score and old-world storytelling coupled with brilliant performances to essentially depict a family at endless war with the outside world. One of the best-looking TV series in recent times, there is a discernible change in disposition when the series moved to Netflix in Season 4 when the anamorphic lenses were adopted to film the series that had expanded in scope. Everything becomes wider and deeper in focus, complementing the plot’s direction.
But even through its weaker sections—which are arguably not many—the force holding the series together is Cillian Murphy. His gait, his natural air of authority that is at odds with his unassuming nature towards his comrades in the proletariat and a commanding dialogue delivery makes for an arresting portrayal that sits in the pantheon of great performances. Murphy has a natural star charisma that flows out of the screen no matter what role he is playing, but Thomas Shelby is the biggest of them all with the widest spectrum of emotions and character arcs. It’s the one artwork that does justice to his talents and for that alone, Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a prospect to relish. Murphy is known to maintain low profile outside of the screen, his disinterest and shyness is palpable during the few talk shows and promotional events he’s appeared in over the years but in front of a movie camera, he is rarely short of electric. Who better than Nolan to bring that to big cinema magic?