Friday, April 23, 2021

A Belated RIP for Helen McCrory: "There's God ... and Then There's The Peaky Blinders and Aunt Polly"

(*Edited - content added) 

I didn't even know she'd passed from cancer, until I saw a blurb about Carey Mulligan dedicating her  Spirit Award to the "late" Helen McCrory, and I looked it up - she died on April 16th from cancer!

For those unaware of who Helen McCrory is, it's a shame - because she was one hell of an actress ...

Most of my fellow Americans will recognize her as Aunt Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders on BBC and Netflix ...

... or perhaps Narcissa Malfoy, Draco Malfoy's mother (and Bellatrix Lestrange's sister), who pretends Harry is dead to covertly help defeat Valdemort, in the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter fans may not be aware, but she was initially cast to play Bellatrix instead of Helena Bonham Carter, but became pregnant with Manon; thus, she later was cast to play her sister/Draco's mother. 

Back to Peaky Blinders, it's my husband's favorite show - and as he said himself, the show will not be the same without her :( 

In fact, IMO, besides Tommy himself, Polly was the best part of that show and virtually the only reason to watch, if a woman, because the show is mostly about men - and after the eye-candy effect wears off, it's mostly a man's story - though the social commentary overall of what veterans, minorities, women, and the poor had to resort to, to survive, is also interesting, which we still see today, even in America.

IMO, she was irreplaceable in that series -  there's not another actress that could do it like Helen McCrory did, even if they brought in a  similar character  ... not like Helen ...

(The last scene from the montage is featured in its entirety in the below clip, both for background history regarding the monster nun, and because, IMO, it's the best all-time scene from Peaky Blinders ;)

Also, as far as acting skills, I have to say, though Cillian Murphy nails the role of Tommy (though you wouldn't think he would with his slight build and angelic face), Tom Hardy gives him a run for his money, as far as acting skills, as Alfie Solomon, leader of the Jewish gang - in fact, he's my next-favorite character, after Polly, also providing much of the humor in this otherwise very intense show.

Back to Aunt Polly/Helen, the character evolves over the course of the series, as when we first see Polly, she's a poor weeping widow, grieving the death of her husband and the loss of her children, whom the Catholic parish authorities in Birmingham took from her, after her drunk husband was killed - despite her being a devoted Catholic (originally Irish-Catholic) - based on the grounds that she was now not only poor, but a single mother without income -  and most importantly to the church, because she was also half-gypsy, practicing tea-leaf reading for income (which she legitimately has a gift for) - which is considered "witchcraft" by the church.

When her nephew, Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) returns from WWI, despite being a decorated war hero for the British Army, he still cannot find work -  not only because he is Catholic (again, originally Irish heritage), but is also of Romani Gypsy heritage, on both sides of his family - despite being born and "bred"  in Birmingham, England, and he, like so many war veterans, also suffers from PTSD.

Thus, he begins an organized crime syndicate called the "Peaky Blinders" with his brothers and several others who were also soldiers who fought for the British Army in WWI, but were nevertheless turned away for work in Britain for various reasons - because they were Irish (especially Irish Catholic), Gypsy, Jewish, Italian, black, or had severe PTSD, with or without substance abuse issues, etc. 

He promises to look after Polly, as she looked after them, when their mother died and father abandoned them, as well as to find her children and return them to her. 

(He eventually returns her grown son, who also becomes a Blinder, albeit a selfish one, much like Tommy himself, much to her dismay - but they learn her daughter died of illness en route to Australia).

However, Polly proves herself every bit as smart as Tommy, and more patient and insightful with people - though at the same time, increasingly abandons her faith in people, or at least now makes them earn the trust she instinctively feels is there, rather than just giving trust until proven untrustworthy.

(I don't identify with Polly in too many ways, but a couple of aspects I do, particularly that one as far as trust, as do many women.  In fact, there are several things that happened in Polly's life we women can relate to, even if we didn't handle them the same way she did/would.)

She thus proves herself a valuable-asset advisor to the Peaky Blinders, with her insight into both people and business; and although she initially does not condone most of the crimes or violence, she also understands the difficulty of Irish Catholics and other minorities, trying to find respectable work in England, at that time -  especially those suffering with PTSD  as soldiers  for England from WWI.

For example, Polly is the first to figure out Tommy's future wife, Grace, who is posing as a barmaid in the Shelby pub, is actually the daughter of former British military officer and a Birmingham policeman, killed by the IRA, and that she is a police spy, long before Tommy or anyone else does - but she also realizes that Grace has legitimately fallen in love with Tommy and vice versa. 

(For the record, the Peaky Blinders kept the IRA at arm's length, like they did everyone else who was politically minded/committed political crimes, unless blackmailed into it - more about that below.)

Thus she invites her for tea, and encourages her to make a choice - Tommy or the local corrupt police - and if she chooses the latter, despite being in love with Tommy and knowing how crooked the local inspector is (who is also Polly's rapist), then she's coming after her, herself, for breaking her nephew's heart and taking the whole family down with him.

Thus, over time, Polly hardens from a weeping widow, wearing her heart on her sleeve, into a sort of numb apathetic, reacting to the world in survival mode,  then into a brief opium addict, then kicks the habit, only to become a bad-ass, weapon-carrying B, in her own right, a force to be reckoned with - even against the other Peaky Blinders themselves - to include kingpin Tommy himself, and even her own son, Michael, when they get too big for their britches.  

(This harder side of Polly appears to emerge after she is raped by the police inspector and later kills him, knowing no one will believe her or care he raped her  - and yet is still wracked with guilt after doing so).

Polly also provided most of the humor in the show, which is otherwise pretty intense - and actually, one of my favorite scenes with her is missing from the above montage.

After the wives, sisters, and aunts are now doing nearly all of the office work and money-laundering work, at all hours of the day and night, for significantly less money than the office men (who take off to drink at random) - as well as Tommy's political-office work as an MP -  led by Polly, they go on strike with Tommy, until he agrees to pay them the same as the men in the office lol.

Tommy, now trying to go legitimate and keep his promise to Grace, then creates a board of directors - which now includes Aunt Polly as their treasurer - as they realize they can't run anything without her.

After both Grace and Polly, he begins to value women for more than just sex and child-rearing - and has come to respect Polly's business savvy and insights into people, as well as that she knows how to manage both men and women in the office, caring for/looking out for them, which Tommy, nor the other brothers, have any patience for.

When an accountant attends a meeting and Tommy is late, his brother, Arthur,  who is the muscle of PB, feebly tries to give a speech and run the meeting, and the accountant begins his board speech by remarking on being unaccustomed to having ladies present in a board meeting, but is delighted to see  as they are "decorative."

When Tommy finally arrives, he asks what they've learned, to which Polly replies sarcastically, "We've learned that ladies are ... 'decorative'."

Tommy just clears his throat, giving no comment, now lol. 

But by far, the very best Polly scene is when she and Tommy visit the local orphanage, run by nuns - in fact, IMO, it's the very best scene in PB history.  

For the background, despite what some local priests have done to her and are involved in, though Tommy is an atheist, Polly is still very much Catholic and a believer in God and the blessed mother, and still insists on money being donated to the church and orphanages - more to make sure the children and poor are taken care of than support for the church staff. 

(As an aside, as far as politics, though Tommy eventually becomes an MP, the Peaky Blinders actually aren't political -  they've used and been used by both sides of politics, when it was mutually beneficial,  from communists to Tories, and everyone in between - even Churchill himself.  The only exception being that they won't work with fascists or the IRA - unless blackmailed into it by the latter. )

Regardless, neither can abide by children or animals being hurt or mistreated - thus, they give much of their money to the local orphanage. 

Thus, when their own personal priest - who is black and on the side of the Peaky Blinders - tells them that the Mother Superior physically abuses the children, by beating them with bricks and hoses -  and is particularly abusive with the half-black child (who kills herself for fear of Mother Superior's temper) - they pay her a visit ;)

They inform her of a withdrawal of their substantial donations to the orphanage and will replace the children into their own institutions, and give her a more personal warning.

The scene evokes in the audience a kind of awe of them - kind of a mixture of both admiration and horror at the same lol.

Because, after all, as Tommy says ... 

"There's God ... and then there's the Peaky Blinders ... and the Peaky Blinders are much closer to the tongue than God, in Small Heath."


Back in the day (and still somewhat today), no one dared investigate or sanction churches, so at least in this series, it was up to them to take care of the situation, and any other justice situations the police and politicians ignored.

Here's the scene, which is, IMO, the very best scene from Peaky Blinders ... 

(You may want to turn the sound down, at first, as the  at the beginning of the scene, setting the tone, rocks out to  "Black Blood" by The Pearl Harts.)

After Tommy says his piece and tells her he's withdrawing the funds and replacing the children, Mother Superior stands and yells they have no right - so Polly spins around, with a knife at her cheek, and warns her ... 

"If I come for you ... and I still might yet decide to come for you ... I will wear high heels, so you can hear my approach on the cobblestones and have time to repent ... You listen for my footsteps."

Okay, I don't know about you, or that monster of a nun, but Polly definitely scared me! lol. 

And yet there's a slight smile on the other nuns faces, if you note - like the audience, a mix of admiration and horror in dealing with this monster of a nun.

It's this morphing evolution of Polly, showing her many facets and the evolution of her character after repeat trauma and being trapped in her circumstances and how she survives,  what she has to resort to (as Tommy's selfishness and lust for power often goes too far), that best showcases Helen McCrory's talent, what a loss :(

She is survived by her husband, actor Damian Lewis (who you may recognize, and is the actor that Prince Harry stated he'd like to see play him on the subsequent series to The Crown on James Corden), as well as their two children, Manon and Gulliver. 

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