The Knick, TV review: Steven Soderbergh creates an artful-yet-authentic picture of NYC on brink of modernity in new hospital-set drama

 

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The Independent Culture

Sky Atlantic's new hospital-set drama The Knick take us on a journey back in time. It was New York City, it was 1900, and we were getting to know pioneering surgeon Dr John Thackery (Clive Owen) as he stumbled out of an opium den and set off for the Knickerbocker hospital to take part in an early trial of the modern Caesarean-section.

All 10 episodes of the series have been directed by Steven Soderbergh and his Oscar-winning eye tells in a detailed, but never finicky, evocation of the past. The dim gas-lit rooms, the all-white surgical uniforms, which contrast dramatically with all-black widow's weeds and the stomach-churning surgery layer to create an artful-yet-authentic picture of NYC on the brink of modernity.

The first episode also succeeds with its score where fellow period piece Peaky Blinders has failed. Soundtrack composer Cliff Martinez is known for setting electronic beats to trendy films like Drive and Spring Breakers, but here his eerie music pulls off a paradox: a historical setting that's also somehow cutting edge.

None of this would count for much with viewers – and indeed the gore might actively count against – if The Knick didn't also boast intriguing characters. There's a smart-mouthed abortionist nun (Cara Seymour) and several greasy city officials, but most satisfying is Clive Owen, finally in a role to match those bestowed by US drama on other beefy British actors of similar vintage. Thackery is an anti-hero, a maverick, a brilliant-but-troubled genius of the kind that HBO dramas have rendered cliché. The difference is that Thackery not only displays the usual bad temper, promiscuity and issues with substance abuse, he's also an out-and-out racist.

Thackery's treatment of his talented, qualified "negro" colleague Dr Algernon Edwards (André Holland) is completely consistent with the period, but since TV so often propagates a white liberal fantasy on racial matters, it's still shocking. If Thackery is an refreshing counterpoint, however, Edwards' characterisation seems to be business as usual. Our anti-hero is allowed his contradictions, but (so far, anyway) Dr Edwards is saintly, dignified and two-dimensional.

His patience is such that he's willing to wait around for the next nine episodes, while Dr Thackery takes a predictable journey from bigotry to betterment, all in his own sweet time.

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