The Knick – Review

Welcome to the circus.

Welcome to the circus.

The Knick is a superb, grimy, period medical drama set at the turn of the twentieth century. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Clive Owen, it’s a great example of the ongoing trend for television to hire top-shelf actors and directors to acquire that filmic quality, and although surprisingly it’s produced by Cinemax, don’t expect soft-core porn or skin – or at least not the epidermal layer. As a medical drama it stands well out from the pack. Lacking the grumpy yet heart-of-gold jocularity of House – it sticks with noir-humor (when there is any). Neither does it attempt the outrageously sensational surgical methods of ER – all it has to do is depict standard Victorian-period trial-and-error – and there was a great deal of error. It’s dark, harsh, coldly technical and unapologetically vivid.

Doctor Thackery: She’s won’t survive.
Sister Harriet: Not a chance.

Next time bring the damned napkins!

Next time bring the damned napkins!

Set in the human cesspit that was New York at the time, a sprawling grindstone inhabited by immigrants and hopefuls from all the world who are still drawn to its very much rising star. The fictionalized Knickerbocker hospital struggles to survive fiscally, situated in a declining district, suffering from wracking deficits, dwindling funds, and undermined from within by by the corrupt practices of administrator Herman Barrow, excellently played by Jeremy Bobb. The head surgeon, Dr. J.W. Thackery (played by Clive Owen), a functioning cocaine addict and genius surgeon describes it as ‘his circus’, and it certainly is.

Primarily, the greatest achievement of the show is reassuring you of the comparatively salubrious benefits of 21st century existence, at least medically; it does not cast a fond glance back to times long gone. I have a high tolerance for grime and gore in films, and I found more nose wrinkling at the scenes of squalor, depravity and desperation than was ever comfortable – and the show never leaves you feeling comfortable.

Knick PIC 3I warn against viewing if hyper-realistic scenes of medical butchery cause you to squirm. As with everything in the show, the gore is not over-played or excessive, one experiences precisely the assumed amount of viscera from incisions, organ removal, emergency cesarean births and disease and the effect is consequently more gut clenching than any blood drenched horror movie. It also excels in examples of historical accuracy. The quintessential resource on Victorian medical protocol, the Burn’s Archive was heavily referenced during production, and Dr. Burns himself was a major consultant on set to ensure meticulous verity which pays off at every level of the presentation.

The show doesn’t so much deal with the major social crises that we’d expect of the time; racism, sexism, abortion, abject class-based bigotry, as it does plunge us feet first into it. We’re not beaten around the head with sexism, for example, as Mad Men did, we’re simply a part of the times, spectators, forced to forget our ‘evolved’ social moorings in exchange for reprehensible leanings that nonetheless were intrinsic to the social fabric. We’re both riled by the apparent ignorance and a part of it, recognizing that this was the foundation of the ongoing social process towards equality and awareness.

Dr. Edwards: “I’m beginning to think you were not told everything about me. You envisioned something different, I take it, something… lighter.
Dr. Thackery: I did. […] I am certainly not interested in an integrated hospital staff.
Dr. Edwards: My skin color shouldn’t matter.
Dr. Thackery: Well if it doesn’t matter then why was that information held back from me?
Dr. Edwards: You’ll have to ask Miss Robertson.
Dr. Thackery: It’s also nowhere to be found on your credentials.
Dr. Edwards: Is your race listed on yours?
Dr. Thackery: There’s no need for it to be.

The subdued, tamped-down rebellion inevitably bursts forth in incendiary ways, shown in the almost poetic violent predilections of Dr Edwards (André Holland) or the heroic actions of Cornelia Robertson (played by Juliet Rylance).

So frequently, the side characters of any production are the most interesting, and although there are riveting performances from the supporting cast (look for Cleary – a wonderful twist on the usual stout, loud-mouthed and jovial Irish stereotype), Clive Owen’s presence is always magnetic and powerful. His character, the unstoppable (mostly) Dr. John W. Thackery, at first looks likes someone Ayn Rand would cook up, utterly uncompromising and cold, difficult and completely dedicated. There’s a warmth there however, nuanced, rare and subtle, and at times he’s almost child-like in his drug-fuelled enthusiasm. In an interview, Owen described Thackery as a ‘rock-star’ of the age (check out those boots), and it’s easy to that role being fulfilled.

Knick PIC 4Technically, the show is beautifully filmed, scored and edited. Warm tones of wood and metal are contrasted by the pristine tiled clinical scenes. Hand-held camera work dominates and the director eschews filming norms to perpetuate the sense of immediacy, an extremely apt application given that much of the medical procedures of the time relied greatly on speed – with the science of transfusions still in the future, patients frequently exsanguinated during surgery (meaning ‘bled-out’ – the series left me with quite the medical vernacular). The soundtrack, composed by Cliff Martinez, also contributes to the frenetic pacing by using modern synthesizers and electronic music instead of a more traditional-sounding score. Sounds weird, but believe me, it completely works.

Highly recommended, one of the finest period dramas yet made. It’s eminently addictive, eligible for many re-screenings and a great source of inspiration. It’ll also make you thank the contemporary medical profession next time you cut your finger and, you know, don’t die.

All hail and give thanks to clean hospitals, neosporin and band-aids.

Flourish 3

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