A taut historical thriller, there’s a sense of grim inevitability that pervades the piece. Knowledge of how the plot must end doesn’t detract from the drama, but adds to it; an almost metatextual dramatic irony derives from this, hastening the palpable sense of doom surrounding the plotters.
At the heart of the drama is Kit Harington’s Robert Catesby. The mastermind behind the plot, Catesby perhaps isn’t quite as interesting a figure as real-life descendent Harington believes – even in a drama dedicated to Catesby’s story, the rather more enigmatic Guy Fawkes is a captivating presence. Nonetheless, though, Harington’s performance is strong – an anchor to ground the drama. It can be easy, perhaps, in a historical drama such as this to lose sight of the weight of emotion behind it, distracted by the period trappings. While the gory torture scenes might have captured headlines, it’s Harington that contextualised it and lent them meaning. In distilling the religious persecution down to the effect it has on a small group of people, the story becomes more intimate – the danger more immediate, and the drive behind the plot more emphatic.
Here, in fact, is where Gunpowder displays a penchant for subtle, intelligent choices. When in Catholic Spain seeking help with his plot, Catesby sees the Spanish authorities burning a Jewish man at the stake – a mirror of the Catholic priest hanged as the drama began. In creating that parallel, Gunpowder makes it obvious that this isn’t a case of good against evil, rather the powerless against those with authority. Director J Blakeson emphasises that again as the drama ends, juxtaposing a gold necklace presented to spymaster Lord Cecil with the noose placed around the necks of the plotters – it’s about power rather than morality. If Gunpowder can be said to be on the side of the Catholic plotters, it’s not because they are Catholic.
In light of that, it’s perhaps interesting to consider how Gunpowder echoes contemporary society. Certainly, the story of abuses of power is a tale as old as time, but contextualised in terms of religious violence, the story takes on another tone. Commenting on the story, Harington noted:
“It’s important to say – I never wanted to think of these men as terrorists. They thought they were revolutionaries. They thought they were bringing direct change to government because how they were being persecuted. However, there is a comparison to be had with these young men who are disenfranchised from society and go about trying to blow up government.”
Arguably, then, Gunpowder’s greatest achievement is in prompting the audience to sympathise with these men, to find a degree of understanding with their story despite how else it might be interpreted. Depictions of these men as heroes or villains are plenty, and the debate around that rages on. In putting that question of good and evil to one side, Gunpowder is able to do something much more interesting.
It’s able to find the humanity within the legacy, paring back the fireworks to show us the real story of bonfire night – explaining just why we remember the 5th of November.
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