HBO Miniseries: GUNPOWDER – Review

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Kit Harington (GAME OF THRONES) has gotten his pet project to air on HBO. It was created as a BBC production over in England, but since HBO has a relationship with the British TV house and that Harington is the beloved Jon Snow for subscribers it was only a logical step for the GUNPOWDER miniseries to appear over here on HBO. It was produced by Kudos and Kit Harington’s Thriker Films for BBC One. The three-part drama series premiered on BBC One in the United Kingdom on 10.21.17. HBO played it over three consecutive nights beginning on 12.18.17. It is a retelling of the Gunpowder Plot, an assassination attempt against King James I of England (in November of 1605) by a small band of Catholics persecuted by the Protestant king. The act of treason was led by one named Robert Catesby. It seems that once Kit Harington had learned that he was related to Catesby on his mother’s side it prompted him to tell the story.

In a nutshell, the story breaks down as follows. In “Episode 1” we learn to what lengths the established government takes in persecuting the Catholic citizenry and how that stirs up Catesby to avenge his family and defend his faith. In “Episode 2” we see Catesby call to arms a small cabal to carry out the plot to blow up the House of Lords with King James I inside while the king’s men, including Sir Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss) and Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley) attempt to rout out any derision. In “Episode 3” the plot is thwarted due to a cryptic letter tipping off guards to take to the tunnels, thus stopping Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen) from completing the mission. As for all the plotters, including Catesby, they are dealt with.

It is not a bad production, think of it as more of a PBS Masterpiece Theatre production with a bit of gore put in than an epic HBO production. Don’t get me wrong, the production value is strong but the execution (do I want you to pardon that pun?) is not epic HBO. The casting, including Liv Tyler (THE LEFTOVERS) as devout Catholic Anne Vaux, Peter Mullen as secreted priest Henry Garnet and Derek Riddell as James I, are all quite good but the work is lacking in story and character development.

GunPowder_pic2-300x200The story of the Gunpowder Plot was told from beginning to end, but there is a lack of context here. Where is the background history explaining the reason behind the Catholic persecution? The graphic scenes of torture, hanging, crushing and being drawn & quartered would have endeared us more to the cause had the story pumped us with more historical perspective. Also lost was any strong character development. Who were the conspirators really? A bit of their background would have also strengthened our belief in their cause. There was a good sense of watching history unfold, but no strong stirring that makes the viewer part of the cause. That emotional attachment was missing. That emotional attachment may have helped us better understand why Bonfire Night & Guy Fawkes Day are still observed across the U. K. on November 5 each year. The historical impact, to this day, is not reflected in the film.

Adding those missing elements would have surely lengthened the miniseries into a fourth night, but I would not have minded that if the complete story was then told. Intrigue, conspiracy and excitement, however, did keep us engaged. It is muscle memory at this point that keeps Harington looking good in period costume & a sword haloed in curly hair. The one who stands out in history and in this movie for this writer, however, is Guy Fawkes. His moments in charge of lighting the fuse that will carry out the plot were raw, feral and intense. Even his brief moments at the hangman’s noose spoke volumes. But I think you can see that more depth of characters would have made it even stronger and Catesby’s death could have also. In the end, the history was told, (with accuracy is in question as this Time.com piece reveals) but could have been told more boldly and compellingly. Judge for yourself if you have not seen HBO Miniseries: GUNPOWDER.

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