Justice League – Film Review

It’s difficult to overstate just how much the DCEU needed Wonder Woman. After the dour and mean-spirited Batman V Superman and the full-metal racket of Suicide Squad, Gal Gadot’s virtuous Themysciran warrior was a Wonder-ful leap forward for the franchise, finally placing an endearing superhero at the heart of an entertaining movie that was as witty and inventive and it was groundbreaking.

If the success of Diana Prince’s first solo-outing offered the chance for the DCEU to shift gears, it’s one Justice League fails to take. Visually ugly, boring and repetitive, this souped-up superhero team-up is a return to the murky aesthetic, sketchy characters and chaotic action that have continuously dogged the series since its conception.

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Tonally, the movie is all over the place, clumsily attempting to stitch together it’s disparate elements into an uninspiring whole. This is most noticeable during a labourious opening act which swings wildly between a grim and gritty Gotham, the shimmering lands of Themyscira and the submerged ruins of Atlantis as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) grumpily tries to recruit a mis-mash of meta humans and ancient gods to his nebulous cause.

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It’s several months after the ‘death’ of Superman and the absence of the son of Krypton has encouraged exiled God Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of buzzing Parademons to invade Earth in search of three cosmic MacGuffin boxes that, when combined, posses the power to destroy the universe. Realising that a seven foot supernatural warrior with a magic axe might pose more of a threat than a bunch exploding wind-up penguins, Batman assembles a ramshackle band of super-beings to help him defeat Darkseid’s right-hand man and prevent the world from becoming an apocalyptic wasteland.

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Such a hackneyed plot holds few surprises, essentially following the tiresomely typical beats of a team-up movie – even the idea of an alien baddie invading Earth to unite a trio of cosmic trinkets is ripped straight from The Avengers. Perhaps that’s why the movie is in such an almighty rush to get down to business. Coming in at a trim two hours, it’s a brisk, breezy adventure – further leavened by an abundance of knowing gags, no doubt penned by Joss Whedon, who replaced director Zack Snyder after a family tragedy and here receives a writing credit.

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Yet this leaves very little time to get to know our new heroes and to dig down into the team dynamics. Like every other movie in the DCEU, Justice League is so eager to catch up with its Marvel rival that it assumes our connection with its characters rather than earning our affections. As a result, the planned emotional beats fail to pay off and the entire story descends into an underwhelming mess of ropey visual effects and lunkheaded plot developments – culminating an overblown finale featuring giant purple tentacle-things, flying zombie insects and a CGI monstrosity so sloppily developed it’ll make you yearn for the heady days of Doomsday and Superman playing computer-rendered whack-a-mole.

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Even so, there’s great fun to be had, particularly in scenes of the League together, bickering and bonding in a rapid-fire exchange of quips, and the cast play off each other extraordinarily well in the circumstances. Ezra Miller is the highlight as a whip-witted and overzealous The Flash, while Gadot once again radiates gravitas as Wonder Woman. Ray Fisher perhaps needs more fleshing out as the brooding Cyborg, though his digitised Frankenstein arch holds promise. Of the new recruits, Aquaman is by far the worst served, Jason Mamoa reduced to bellowing stock-jock phrases like ‘Oh yeah’ and ‘My man’, as if he’s a drunken frat boy rather than the heir to an ancient kingdom.

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If Batman feels like an after thought to the team, that’s hardly the fault of Affleck, who brings an enjoyable gruffness that works well with his elder statesman interpretation of the Caped Crusader. The problem is that Batman is simply not suited to the role of inspirational leader to a team of superheroes – a point the movie tries to address, to unsatisfying effect – and his physical handicaps when compared to the rest of the team understandably see him left behind during many of the action scenes.

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Justice League is undoubtedly brighter and funnier than any DCEU movie to date. But it remains lumbered with the same flaws that have been dragging the franchise down from the beginning – namely a loose grip of its tone, haphazard plotting and a collection of unengaging heroes who fail to live up to their billing. As long as these problems persist, there’s no danger of the DCEU usurping the big red behemoth as ruler of the multiverse.

Runtime: 120 mins (approx)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher

 

 

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Paddington 2 – Film Review

“If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” Paddington Bear proudly declares in this splendid sequel to 2014’s cuddly Michael Bond adaptation. At a time when world events are so utterly miserable that even Morrissey finds the news a bit too bleak, there’s something irresistibly delightful about a movie with the sole aim of being warmer, funnier and more charming than it’s predecessor. That Paddington 2 absolutely delivers on that promise is perhaps the most joyful surprise of all, embarking on another gloriously whimsical adventure that proves our furry friend from deepest Peru has lost none of his quintessential spirit.

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With Paul King back in the director’s chair, the warm glow of Paddington’s visual splendour remains undimmed. From an opening shot of Paddington smudging the movie’s title on a misty window to an affectingly animated sequence that transforms London Bridge into an old-fashioned pop-up book, the movie is crammed with clever motifs. This endearing blend of antiquated fantasy and modern elements is never more apparent than in King’s misty-eyed view of 21st Century London – a place where neighbours greet each other jovially every morning and people still make calls to landlines from a phone box.

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There we rejoin Paddington (Ben Whishaw), who has happily settled into life with the Brown family and become a popular fixture of the Windsor Gardens community. With his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday approaching, the duffle coat-sporting bear sets his heart on buying a pop-up book of London as her present, only to learn it costs much more than the 50p coin he found in his ear. Before he can earn enough money to buy the book, it’s stolen by washed-up local actor Phoenix Buchanan (a wonderfully preening and pretentious Hugh Grant), who frames Paddington for the theft and has him sent to jail for “grievous barberly harm’.

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One of the most refreshing elements of this series is the way Paddington’s kindness runs through the comedy. There are no offensive one-liners or gross gags on show here – instead, the humour comes in the form of silly set-pieces as Paddington clumsily attempts a series of odd jobs in a bid to raise money for his auntie’s gift. Even on the rare occasions when a joke is at someone’s expense, it’s always a result of Paddington’s naive honesty rather than malice. And, as is the case with Peter Capaldi’s grumpy Little Englander Mr Curry, the victim usually has it coming to them.

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If the episodic structure results in a few chapters running a bit too long – a prison-set sequence that feels like a Porridge/Great British Bake Off crossover drags the film to a halt midway through – there’s always another daft set piece on the way to lift the mood. That’s not to say Paddington 2 is without moments that’ll have you rummaging for the hankies – King and Simon Farnaby’s script is speckled with fuzzy sentiment about the importance of family and belonging.

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Politicos might choose to see this as a softly anti-Brexit statement, but that feels far too grown-up for a wonderfully silly film that really seems to have nothing more on its mind than revelling in the joys of life. Yes, Paddington 2 might not solve the world’s problems, but it’ll most definitely make us feel better about them. I bet even Morrissey will enjoy watching this one…

Runtime: 103 mins (approx.)
Director: Paul King
Screenwriters: Paul King, Simon Farnaby
Stars: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins

Murder on the Orient Express – Film Review

Despite its status as one of Agatha Christie’s finest works, it’s been more than forty years since superlative whodunnit Murder on the Orient Express last graced the big screen with Sidney Lumet’s celebrated adaptation. By modern standards that makes Kenneth Branagh’s remake long overdue. It’s a shame, then, that it’s hardly worth the wait as Branagh struggles to prevent this handsomely-mounted thriller from falling off the rails.

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Though Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) throws a few mischievous tweaks into his script, the plot essentially remains the same. The meticulous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, sporting an inconceivably dramatic ‘tache) joins an eclectic array of first-class passengers aboard the titular locomotive. What begins as a exquisite trip across Eastern Europe swiftly takes a more sinister track when a fellow passenger is discovered dead in a locked cabin. Everyone is a suspect as the Belgian bloodhound starts sniffing for clues and deduces that the murderer must still be hiding on board the train.

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Like Lumet’s effort, Branagh has attracted a glittering cast to play his menagerie of eccentric travellers. Dame Julie Dench is a fussy Russian aristocrat; Olivia Coleman plays her timid servant; Michelle Pfeiffer is a flirty widow; Daisy Ridley shines as a sharp-witted governess; Leslie Odom Jr plays a noble doctor; Johnny Depp is a shifty gangster, while Josh Grad and Derek Jacobi play his twitchy secretary and tetchy butler; and Willem Defoe rounds out the main players as a disagreeable Austrian academic.

The starry nature of the cast is outshone only be the majesty of the cinematography. Shot in 65mm, the movie basks in the luxury and lavishness of the era, the camera soaring over snowy mountain tops and plummeting down vertiginous drops as the train teeters upon a towering trestle after being halted by an avalanche. This indulgent style adapts surprisingly well to the claustrophobic confines of the carriages, Branagh deploying elegant tracking shots and woozy angles that can be so effective in building tension.

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That the movie then fails to sustain any sense of suspense is surprising. Part of the problem is that modern audiences are so well-versed in the genre that all the old-fashioned tricks and misdirections inevitably underwhelm – one deduction relating to a smudged passport is so blindingly obvious it brings into question Poirot’s status as the world’s greatest sleuth.

More troublesome, though, is the lack of spark between the passengers. Some mild attempts to stoke racial tensions aside, there’s an absence of animosity or drama between those on board the train and too many of the travellers feel like caricatures rather than fully-fleshed characters. Branagh in particular allows Poirot’s amusing peculiarities to overshadow his genius.

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It’s disappointing because there’s an engaging movie hiding amid this tired mix of revelations, reveals and red-herrings – the desperately gripping denouement is masterfully executed as the facts of the case push Poirot’s morality to its limits. If only the audience’s attention spans hadn’t disembarked long before the train lurched into its powerfully moving destination.

Runtime: 114 mins (approx.)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Michael Green
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp

 

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s been six years since Chris Hemsworth’s Thor swaggered onto the MCU scene with charmingly misplaced arrogance and pecks that could crush an Infinity Stone to dust. But lately it feels like the God of Thunder has grown stale: Alan Taylor’s grimly stogy follow-up and an overstuffed Avengers sequel proving that all the Shakespearean haminess and entitled worthiness were starting to lose their appeal.

Thankfully, Thor: Ragnarok is just the bonkers shot in the arm the hammer-twirling superhero required. Gleefully tearing up the rule book for a cape-and-tights adventure, director Taiki Waititi has crafted a colourfully cosmic thrill ride that’s funnier and more uproarious than a modern superhero movie has any right to be.

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The director of affectingly funny Kiwi comedies Hunt for the Wilderpeople and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi wastes little time in stamping his off-beat style on the Norse god. Things kick-off with a side-splitting prologue in which Thor’s attempts to reason with a fiery demon are constantly interrupted by the twirling of his restraints and the from there delivers belly laughs at every turn.

It’s indicative of a movie that cheerfully brings out the superhero genre’s inherent silliness by undercutting any hint of seriousness or pomposity with a perfectly executed mix of clever, daft and just plain weird gags. Make no mistake, Ragnarok still delivers all the pulse-quickening set-pieces you could desire – it’s just that it’s all imbued with an effervescent sense fun which brings a whole new energy to proceedings.

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The God of Thunder likewise feels reinvigorated by this change in tone. Since we last saw him swatting verbose robots in Age of Ultron, Thor’s taken to wandering the cosmos to learn more about the Infinity Stones (or “glowing stoney things” as he calls them). That is until a premonition forces him to return to Asgard – where his brother Loki has dethroned Odin and dumped him in an Earthly retirement home – to head off the threat posed by Cate Blanchett’s invading Hela. After receiving an almighty pasting from the Goddess of Death, Thor is tossed from the Bifrost and finds himself stranded on the junkyard planet Sakaar. There he’s promptly taken hostage, shorn of his cape, his trusty Mjolnir and, most devastatingly of all, his flowing golden locks, before being thrown into the gladiatorial pits to fight for his freedom.

Being stripped of his defining traits proves to be transformative for the buffest of deities. Left with only his fists and wits to survive, we get to see a grittier, wilier Thor, but also a more vulnerable one, which is particularly enticing given his strength is about to be severely tested in terrifying new ways. It also allows Hemsworth to flex the comedic muscles he so handsomely displayed in last year’s Ghostbusters reboot, ditching the fish-out-of-water schtick of previous outings and throwing himself into a much sillier version of Odinson.

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And then there’s the big green rage machine. Riffing on the Planet Hulk storyline, Thor is joined in his kaleidoscopic exile by Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, whose stuck in perma-Hulk mode and eking out an existence as Sakaar’s premier tourist attraction. Having developed a broader vocabulary, the strongest Avenger gets more to do than just Hulk smash his way through every scene (though there’s still plenty of destructive force on show) and quickly forms a winning double act as the tightly-wound straightman to Hemsworth’s reckless hero.

Indeed, the movie is stuffed with staggering performances. Tom Hiddleston makes a welcome return as sly mischief maker Loki, who finds himself unexpectedly on the fringes of his brother’s plans after his previous betrayal. Jeff Goldblum is at his most flamboyant as Sakaar’s eccentric overlord the Grandmaster. Tessa Thompson is an impressive addition, playing an ale-swigging Asgardian warrior-turned-scavenger. Meanwhile, Waititi almost steals the entire movie with an hilarious turn as softly spoken Kronan gladiator Korg whose heartfelt commentary results in some of the best lines.wits

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But true to Marvel form, the villain fails to inspire. Blanchett is a certainly striking presence, looking for all the world like Marlyn Manson’s stroppy sister with her smudged eyeliner and twisted headdress, and poses a significant threat with her superior strength and ability to conjure razor sharp weapons out of thin air. Yet she’s underused, her motive for invading Asgard never fully fleshed out and little being made of her complex connection to Thor’s family. Her scenes rarely move the action forward and serve only as an unwelcome distraction from the bombastic joys of Thor’s off-world hijnks.

That’s ultimately where Ragnarok falters: when it’s forced to be a straight-forward superhero movie. Though the plot is far from slight – dealing with massacres, slavery, refugees and the small matter of the end of days – attempts to reach the heavier emotional beats are hampered by the constant barrage of gags that are fired towards us. It feels like the movie spends so much time goofing across the universe that there’s little time left for character building or emotional depth. With the stakes made to feel so low, it’s hardly shocking that the climatic showdown lacks gravity – and not just because Waititi can’t help but resort to the usual Giant CGI Thing cliche.

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Nevertheless, Thor: Ragnarok is a delirious carnival of psychaedelic colour and bonkers entertainment that offers a fresh, invigorating look at one of the most popular Avengers. If only Waititi has resisted the urge to revert to formula in the final third…

Runtime: 130 mins (approx.)
Director: Taiki Waititi
Screenwriters: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett

The Death of Stalin – Film Review

For most, laughter isn’t a typical response when thinking about the death of Joseph Stalin, the ruthless leader of the Soviet Union whose reign was defined by wide-spread famine, labour camps and mass executions. Then again, most of us aren’t Armando Iannucci, the genius writer of The Thick of It and Veep. Having extracted plenty of giggles from the daft machinations of Whitehall and Washington, the master satirist applies his brand of political farce to one of the darkest periods in human history. And the result is one of the most breathlessly funny movies of the year.

Adapted from the graphic novel by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin sees Stalin’s most trusted sycophants scrambling to fill the power vacuum left by their dearly departed leader. Cue a pile-up of panicked plotting, paranoid power plays and enough terrified cursing to bring the colour back to Stalin’s pallid cheeks as the Soviet Union’s most senior politicians jostle for position – all in the knowledge that failure means almost certain death.

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Naturally, Iannucci has assembled a staggering cast to play such a vile bunch of power-hungry plotters. Paul Whitehouse is wheeler-dealer labour minister Mikayan, who has a small but pivotal part to play in selected Stalin’s successor. Michael Palin lends his kindly puppy dog eyes to harmless loyalist Molotov, who sold out his own wife to curry favour with his leader. Jeffrey Tambor is on top form as the vain and pliable patsy Malenkov. Steve Buscemi channels his Broadwalk Empire experience into playing the bumbling but deceptively sinister Khrushchev.

Rather than battering audiences with terrible cod-Russian accents, the entire cast play their parts using their own gloriously incongruous accents. That means we’re treated to the sights and sounds of Adrian Mclaughlin playing Stalin as a raging cockney and Jason Isaac bellowing lines like “I fucked Germany. I think I can take a flesh lump in a waistcoat,” in a thunderous Yorkshire brogue as venerated army general Zhukov.

The pick of the bunch, though, is Simon Russell Beale’s icy and ruthless secret police chief Beria. Even amongst this collection of despicable wretches, Beria stands out as the dark heart of the movie, keeping young girls locked up for his pleasure and coldly ordering the execution of innocent ‘traitors’, all while slyly scheming to seize power.

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It’s Beria’s vicious inhumanity that reminds you that Moscow in 1953 was a dangerous place to be. Stalin operated a totalitarian regime that was rife with mistrust and paranoia: secret police officers hid behind every corner, children turned informant on their own fathers, and just one slip of the tongue could see you carted off to the gulag to be tortured and executed. Iannucci draws upon this palpable sense of panic to heighten the comedy. With In the Loop, a mistake meant, at worst, media embarrassment; here, any slip-up means joining Stalin on the mortuary slab, and the rapid-fire dialogue and weapons-grade insults are that much sharper because everyone knows the high cost of failure.

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Yet for all the humour, the movie doesn’t shy away from showing the true brutality of Stalin’s era and its most affecting moments come when the comedy stops and the high stakes are made devastatingly clear. Iannucci balances these tonal shifts superbly, allowing a peerless piece of slapstick involving the moving of a piss-stained corpse to be followed seamlessly by a terrifying sequence where Stalin’s palace is ransacked and his servants are shot in the driveway. Such scenes pave the way for a gut-wrenching final 10 minutes in which Khrushchev executes his ghastly plan to bloody effect and you realise that – all the fun and games aside – for the loser these violent delights have violent ends.

Runtime: 106 mins (approx.)
Director: Armando Iannucci
Screenwriters: Armando Iannucci, David Schneider, Ian Martin
StarsThe Death of Stalin – Film Review: Simon Russell Beale, Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Paul Whitehouse, Adrian Mclaughlin

 

Happy Death Day – Film Review

It’s a rare occasion when a great performance manages to elevate an otherwise sucky movie. The likes of Nicholas Cage and Eva Green have made careers out of the art – but very few others have managed to pop up out of the mess and do something truly special to make their movie watchable. Jessica Rothe does just that in Happy Death Day, her full-blooded performance turning an otherwise forgettably bloodless teen slasher movie into a genuine thrill.

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Rothe plays Teresa – or Tree for short – an irresponsible college student whose birthday – a day she already loathes – gets off to the worst possible start when she wakes up hungover in the dorm room of her adorably dorky one-night-stand. Naturally, things get progressively worse for Tree in the ensuing 24 hours as she endures repeated calls from her disappointed dad, snarky snipping from her sorority sisters and the needy advnaces of her sexually confused ex. Oh yeah, and she gets murdered in a campus underpass by a baby-faced psychopath. But then she wakes up, stuck in the same day, unable to to break the cycle until she finds her killer.

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Few surprises lay ahead in this slasher horror meets teen comedy as Tree naively barrels into every cliche in the horror cannon in her attempt to Live.Die.Repeat her way to uncovering her killer’s identity. There’s enough walking through darkly lit corridors and fleeing into obvious dead ends that genre aficionados will likely suffer a repetitive strain injury from the amount of eye rolling they’ll be doing. The lack of invention wouldn’t be so problematic if Tree’s many deaths weren’t so scare-free and gore-less. That’s the key flaw with this Groundhog Day-aping format: we already know she’ll wake up again so we have no reason to fear her next impending demise – especially as it appears it’ll be largely painless.

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Thankfully, Rothe is the movie’s saving grace. Whether she’s strutting across a college campus in the nude, delivering brilliantly bitchy one-liners with venomous aplomb or going full Sarah Connor in her attempts to defeat her killer, Tree is a fireball of badass energy that actually makes the movie a fun, spirited watch for 90 minutes. It’s also pretty refreshing to see a female action hero being so unafraid to be unlikeable and confident in her sexuality – at least until she’s bizarrely slut-shamed by an incomprehensible third act twist. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie doesn’t share her boldness.

Runtime: 96 mins (approx.)
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriter: Scott Lobdell
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken

Gunpowder – TV Review

“No more swords, no more horses – and maybe I can cut my hair.” So Kit Harrington reportedly demanded of roles inbetween turns as Game of Thrones’ resident auntie-romancer Jon Snow. Cue much sword wielding, horse riding and an impressive mane as Harrington seeks to transfer his brooding charms to BBC1 for Gunpowder, a bleak historical drama about the plot to blow up the House of Lord in 1605.

But while the King of the North might be on familiar territory, the same can’t be said for the rest of us. Despite commemorating the event each year by setting fire to old kitchens and paying through the nose for whimsical pyrotechnic displays, it’s likely many of us know next to nothing about the real events of the gunpowder plot.

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For starters, Harrington isn’t even playing Guy Fawkes, who was really just the fall guy for the plotters after being caught guarding barrels of explosives beneath Westminster all those years ago. Instead, he stars as his real-life ancestor Robert Catesby, the true mastermind behind the plot whose role has largely avoided the eyes of history up to this point.

That the true story has gone untold for so long is surprising, for it’s a tale ripe dripping with dramatic potential. Scripted by Top Boy’s Ronan Bennett, the show draws us into an expensively mounted, relentlessly grim world of religious persecution, where stately homes are routinely ransacked by the King’s guard and Catholic priests are forced to cower in secret holes for preaching the word of God.

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Gunpowder doesn’t shy away from revealing the gruesome reality of this period. One particularly unpleasant sequence sees Catesby’s elderly aunt stripped naked and slowly crushed to death in front of a baying mob, followed moments later by a boyish priest being disembowelled and dismembered.

So why, given its obvious pedigree and rich source material, does the drama underwhelm? Part of the reason is the aforementioned bleakness. The first episode is unrelentingly grim, full of stoney faced characters either being brutally tortured or brooding over the state of the country. Perhaps such horrific scenes are important in establishing what sets Catesby and his conspirators on their path towards an act of terrible revenge, but it hardly makes for enjoyable Saturday night entertainment.

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The story also suffers by trying to hard to cover all angles. The flaw in dramatising a little-known period of history is that the audience need events to be put into context for them. That leaves episode one with a lot a heavy lifting to do, meaning there’s little time to get under the skin of its characters. And that’s a shame because the performances are uniformly excellent – look out for a grandly malevolent turn by Mark Gatiss as arch schemer Lord Robert Cecil.

The fireworks may be still to come, of course – the plot has barely begun to be plotted by the episode’s end, leaving plenty of scope for the action to pick up in the remaining two instalments. But if Gunpowder continues on its current trajectory, its plot is in danger of being scuppered before it’s even had a chance to light the fuse.