Peaky Blinders Review: Tommy, Grace & the Symbolism of Framing

It’s very Michael Jackson and Neverland, isn’t it? . . . . All the shiny, horrible things in the house are Tommy’s! It is a very nouveau riche thing: ‘What are we going to do now we’ve got lots of money? We’ll put up portraits of ourselves.’ It’s very telling.

— Cillian Murphy in Express

Let me begin by confessing that I have almost no training in film or cinematography, and my interest is in framing as a thematic tool rather than as a cinematic device.  I have always been fascinated by the “framing” that happens in Peaky Blinders.  I realize that film is, inherently, about framing.  That is, a director chooses what to include and what to exclude in any given shot and that those decisions are driven by aesthetic and thematic needs.  But there are times when Peaky Blinders does some interesting character framing within a given scene, and I’d like to explore that.  My discussion is in no way comprehensive.  Rather, I’ve selected various “frames” from all three series both because they interest me and because I think they make statements about the thematic focus of Peaky Blinders.

Framing

"Frame" from <I>Oxford Art Online</I>
“Frame” from Oxford Art Online

Oxford Art Online has a lengthy definition of “frame” that illustrates the questions that accompany the use of a frame — and I realize this definition is largely focused on wall art.  But the theoretical principles have some application to a discussion of film.

I’d like to highlight a few points that seem relevant:

  • “[T]he provision of an area of transition between the real world and that of the picture.”
  • “Picture and frame are mutually dependent, the one incomplete without the other.”
  • “The act of framing is also a signal of ownership:  pictures were reframed according to the tastes of new owners . . . .”

These ideas provide a nice springboard for a discussion of some of the framing that is done in all three series of Peaky Blinders.

Series 1

In Series 1, Episode 1, consider the moment when Tommy and Grace first meet:

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, Series 1
Peaky Blinders, Series 1
<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, Series 1
Peaky Blinders, Series 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tommy is framed by the window in The Garrison.  It is visually interesting and calls attention to his centrality as a character.  Contrast that with the picture of Grace.  She is framed only by the camera; there is no external device confining her.  Thematically, this suggests that Tommy is about to be “framed” while Grace operates freely without anyone realizing who she is.

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, Series 1
Peaky Blinders, Series 1

Now, consider this shot:

There’s a double frame at work here:  the window into the snook as well as the frame Harry’s arms form as he pulls a pint.  On one level, this looks very cool — it shows the careful cinematography Peaky Blinders is known for.  But on another level, it suggests that Harry, too, will help “frame” Tommy.  After all, he is the one who has hired Grace and allowed her to enter this world.  Visually, this reinforces the notion of a trap that has been set for Tommy.  Of course, ironically, the trap catches both Grace and Tommy, but at this point, no one knows that.  The use of framing echoes this central thematic point.

Tommy attempts to “frame” Grace within the context of The Garrison before he leaves:  “Are you a whore?  Because if you’re not, you’re in the wrong place.” By the series’ end, it’s clear that he fails completely.

It’s also worth noting that the frames here are natural — nothing ornate or gaudy.  This reflects the fact that the Shelbys are trying to become a legitimate business.  Elaborate framing would be out of place — that’s something for wealthy people.  In addition, the only pictures in Series 1 are the war photographs Polly has of Arthur, Tommy, and John.  They are family artifacts, not pieces of art, and have practical frames.

Series 2

In Series 2, the Shelbys are doing much better financially though Tommy’s relationship with Grace appears to have failed.  A high point of the series occurs in 2.5, the evening when he sees Grace again.  As they sit in Tommy’s house, self-consciously drinking and trying to find their way back to each other through a tangle of distrust and social expectations, Tommy begins to take control of the situation.  He suggests that he no longer loves Grace and that she “can go.”

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, Series 2
Peaky Blinders, Series 2

As he pours her a drink, there’s this shot:

This is a close-up of Grace’s face, framed by Tommy’s body.  That’s his arm on the right  and his hip on the left.  In the middle is a disoriented Grace.

Again, this is visually interesting, but of particular note is the decision to use Tommy’s body as a frame.  Here, Grace is literally trapped by him even though he has told her that she can leave because he doesn’t love her anymore.  It’s a very physical moment, one that foreshadows their physical and emotional intimacy.

But consider this line from Oxford Art Online:  “Picture and frame are mutually dependent, the one incomplete without the other.”  With Tommy and Grace this is true, a fact that becomes especially clear in 3.6.  Tommy and Grace love each other; that is, they are incomplete without each other.

It’s worth noting that a framed portrait of a woman (presumably Ada), a sign of wealth, hangs on the wall, but this “picture” of Tommy and Grace is the one that matters.

Series 3

In Series 3, the framing takes a very different direction.

First, there are framed pieces of art everywhere.  Visually, this is far removed from the framing of Series 1.  Art Director Katy Tuxford’s website explains:  “New storylines have expanded the world of the Peaky Blinders with Thomas Shelby living like aristocracy, his empire has expanded and new sets reflect this, his family experiencing their new found power and wealth in the roaring 1920’s.”

<I>Peaky Blinders<.I>, Series 3
Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Peaky Blinders, Series 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cillian Murphy refers to “all the shiny horrible things in the house.”  He continues, speaking as Tommy, “What are we going to do now we’ve got lots of money?  We’ll put up portraits of ourselves.”

On one level, I agree completely.  The portrait of Tommy and Grace’s Secret in the dining room is just garish.  And, yes, he’s spending his money in a way that he thinks rich people do.  But on another level, to paraphrase Oxford Art Online, he is showing ownership and immortalizing those who are dear to him.

Production Designer Richard Bullock notes, “The portraits of members of the family are massively important to the script.”  Some interpreted that to mean they mattered to the plot; as it turns out, however, the portraits indicated character.  (Contrast Tommy’s relationship to his portraits with Polly’s destruction of her own portrait after deciding it didn’t reflect who she is.)

Tommy’s house also has family photographs, and in one scene after Grace’s death, he puts her picture in a drawer, clear echoes of May Carlton’s line in Series 2:  “I locked his pictures in a drawer as if that would change anything.”  (I suspect that will be revisited in Series 4.)

Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders 3.6
Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders 3.6

But it’s the final image and frame in Series 3 that carries the most weight.  After watching his family being hauled off to jail, an action Tommy initiated, the series ends with this image:

As Cillian Murphy told Deadline:

S0 I think what he [Tommy] went through in the series emotionally, and physically, myself and the director Tim (Mielants) we always wanted to really, really push it and that’s why I think Tommy has been altered sort of irrevocably throughout this.  Sort of because of what he suffered, what he went through physically and losing his wife and almost losing his son and now basically he’s left alone.  That last shot you just see him standing in that big empty house and everybody’s gone.

This image takes framing to a new level.  Here is Tommy, standing alone, framed by his house.  Remember the line from Oxford Art Online:  “Picture and frame are mutually dependent, the one incomplete without the other.”  That’s where Tommy is now.  His wealth, all that he worked to hard to achieve, leaves him utterly isolated.  Fittingly, Radiohead’s “Life in a Glass House” plays.

In Series 3, Polly says to the family, “Look how far we’ve come.”  The use of framing in Peaky Blinders illustrates this point while questioning the cost of Tommy Shelby’s success.

Publication Date:  18 July 2016

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Related Blog Posts

Peaky Blinders, Tommy & Grace, and “Making Things” Stories

Peaky Blinders Review:  What Happened to John Shelby?

Peaky Blinders Review:  The Show Gets Meta (Or, How Did I Miss This?)

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  What Happened to the Strong Female Characters?

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  The Series Changes Focus — It’s About Masculinity

Peaky Blinders 3.5 Review:  Language, Cultural Identity, and Disruption

Peaky Blinders 3.1 — Displacement


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