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Gunpowder – Review * 05 November 2017

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By turns brutal, tense and moving, the BBC mini-series Gunpowder presents us with a fantastic examination of the roots of fundamentalism and the uncertain morality that exists on both sides of that ideology.

If you've been raised in the British Isles -or have seen Sherlock S3E1 The Empty Hearse - there's no doubt you're well aware of what occurs every November 5 - a cavalcade of firework displays and organised bonfire burnings of dummies referred to as 'Guys'. It's something we're effectively indoctrinated into from an early age. Along comes Gunpowder then to upend our cosy childhood memories and bring us a portrait of what life felt like at the time of the event we're marking on a chilly November night. The attempted attack on Parliament that was set to occur on November 5th would have lead to the assassination of King James I and the entire House of Lords. We celebrate the plots failure as a result, but Gunpowder sets out to challenge our views in vivid fashion. The three hour series opens with the unbearably tense hunt, capture and execution of a Catholic priest and the female head of the household that sheltered him. Much has been made in the British press of these scenes in recent weeks, and it is true - they do not shy away from the horror of the circumstances. The plight of the Catholic plotters is humanised through the bloody (yet largely obscured) violence and torture visited upon them by the state. Cleverly, the drama is extremely even handed though - while we spend much time witnessing the persecution dished out against English Catholics, a sojourn overseas to Spain makes a shrewd point to show the ruling Catholics burning a pair of Jews at the stake. Oppression ultimately occurs everywhere, and no one is better than anyone else.

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Inhabiting this extremely impressive realisation of 1605 England is a superb cast, chiefly led by Kit Harrington as lead conspirator Robert Catesby. Shed of his Winterfell by way of Sheffield accent that you may be most familiar with, this is a part powered by misplaced nobility and focused burning anger. Though the plot is of course doomed to failure, Catesby is our quasi-tragic not-quite-heroic lead, where his violent intent has violent ends, and Harrington gives it his all. Also a standout is Tom Cullen as a brutish Guy Fawkes, the conspirator we are most familiar with thanks to the positioning of history. He was the man caught at the scene of the crime, but very far from the brains of the operation. Away from the plotters is an effective double hander of humanity from Peter Mullen and Liv Tyler, two people caught in the orbit of the conspiracy and lead to be guilty through that growing knowledge. They present a contemporary resonance for any family that finds themselves attached to someone who may wish mass harm on others, and leave an indelible impression.

On the other side of the narrative though sits Mark Gatiss as Lord Cecil, the personification of a Jacobean GCHQ. Cecil is quietly dangerous in that way that only Mark Gatiss can be, chasing down information with a terrier like determination, all while deploying Sir William Wade (a fantastically imposing Shaun Dooley) to relentlessly carry out his will in often brutal fashion. Cecil suffered from an unspecified spinal abnormality in reality as well, and Gatiss spends the duration of Gunpowder with his head and neck uncomfortably tilted to his shoulder, an affection that makes him stand out amongst the cast, while also disguising the threat he presents to the aims of the gunpowder plotters.  

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Gunpowder is thus three hours of murky greys, rather than a simple black and white drama. We are positioned to root for the Catholic conspirators who wish to deliver terrorism upon the country, while hating the ruling elites who are trying to stop them. On paper, it's an inversion of the usual good and evil tropes, but ultimately the series is something much rarer. It is sumptuously shot and opulently produced, lit by candlelight and crusted with grime and blood, giving us a vivid realisation of this time long past where the best entertainment was seeing someone brutally executed in the street for all to see. Propulsive and thrilling, Gunpowder offers us no easy answers alongside its dark history lesson, and is all the better for it.

Gunpowder is available on BBC iPlayer until December 4 2017, and is released on DVD and Blu Ray on November 20.

Gunpowder will air in the United States on HBO on December 18, 19 and 20 at 10pm.