THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Steven Soderbergh returns to TV with an ultra-real medical drama set in the gritty New York of 1900
THE great actor Laurence Olivier loved watching medical operations, fascinated by surgeons: the theatricality of white gowns in the heat of the operating theatre fighting for life under death’s winged shadows is after all serious drama. Actors, the great man thought, should have copies of Gray’s Anatomy next to their beds. “I simply wanted to know more about myself,” Olivier said. “I wanted to get under the make-up, really beneath the skin. I wanted to know every part of me. Every inch, duct and vessel.”
He would have loved The Knick, this startling, darkly comic but brutally realistic new series set in downtown New York in 1900, centred on the once respectable fictional Knickerbocker Hospital and the surgeons, nurses and other staff who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates.
Directed, executive produced, edited (under the pseudonym Mary Ann Bernard) and photographed (as Peter Andrews) by Steven Soderbergh, returning to TV after losing faith in the business of making movies, it’s a work of an undeniably coherent vision, stylish pictorial vernacular, clever, and arresting. Olivier would have applauded that, too.
Martin Scorsese, who only recently came to TV with Boardwalk Empire, famously said that “cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not”. And Soderbergh also knows how to put a story together with a craftsman’s sense of exactitude. All 570 pages of it in this case (that’s the total script length of the 10 episodes), the restrictions of an exhausting production schedule yielding compelling results, with cinematic mastery stamped over every scene, moment and shot.
It’s a time when the city’s population swelled from several hundred thousand to just over two million, with the Lower East Side the most densely populated area on the globe. The city, medieval in its darkness and dankness, is overrun by disease, futilely policed by corrupt health officials, tenements jammed with ailing immigrants, the skies filled with soot.
There are no antibiotics of course and medical practices are crude, at best. It’s a time when most hospitals were looked at as a place to die. And Soderbergh’s series is the story of how pioneering surgeons such as John Thackery, played with a sense of convincing bravado by Clive Owen, helped create the modern American hospital system.
America is emerging quickly from the Victorian era. Suddenly there are primitive X-rays, new machines for clearing blood from procedures, electricity that can light operating theatres and a new understanding of drugs, chemistry, and pharmacology.
As the series unfolds the hospital becomes a place where miracles happen and doctors like Thackeray become the rock stars of the era. He’s loosely based on William S. Halsted, a pioneer of scientific surgery who opened a surgical school at Johns Hopkins University. He revolutionised surgery by insisting on skill and technique rather than brute strength. He also developed conduction anaesthesia by injecting his own nerve trunks with cocaine, to which he subsequently became addicted.
And Thackery is also a highly functioning drug addict, who we first met in an opium den bordello wearing exquisitely crafted white boots, a man in constant propulsive forward motion having left many bodies in his wake. Cocaine, legal at the time, helps maintains his considerable momentum. As the great medical explorer searches for answers to the mysteries of life and death, his hospital faces upheaval due to an exodus of affluent patrons, an infusion of deprived patients, and gross mismanagement of its finances. Even keeping the new electric lights functioning at the Knick is problematic.
Then to his great mortification he is reluctantly paired with a young black doctor, Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), whose intelligence and innovative methods rival Thackery’s, but whose arrival is marked by disrespect from fellow doctors, prejudice from patients and racial bigotry from the great man. “You can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you,” Thackery tells the sophisticated young doctor, trained in Paris. “I don’t want you in my circus.”
There’s also svelte Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), daughter of a shipping tycoon who wields significant influence at The Knick, determined to hire Edwards over Thackery’s protege, Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson) in the cause of racial and social equality. “Bertie” Chickering Jr (Michael Angarano) is a young surgeon secretly in love with the oddly pretty, ingenuous nurse Lucy Elkins (Eve Hewson), who is drawn to Thackery.
Chain-smoking Sister Harriet (Cara Seymour), who runs the foundling hospital and maternity ward is a commanding presence, as is Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), The Knick’s bustling, crooked superintendent, awash in debt and willing to risk The Knick’s future to pay it off. Tom Cleary (Chris Sullivan), is the churlish ambulance driver, adept with a club, who will stoop to the lowest depths to bring the right kind of patients to The Knick.
It’s a great disorderly assembly of characters, played to perfection by Soderbergh’s large and thoughtful ensemble cast, obviously perfectly at home with the pace of production. Owen is its centre of course, a not unfamiliar antihero sure but acted with a glowering charm that channels Richard Burton, though he plays one long speech about the possibilities of future medicine with the kind of resonant authority Olivier himself might have envied.
Not all US critics liked Owen or the show: a fancied-up variation on St. Elsewhere or House some suggested, wrapping up something overly familiar in “in a well-made suit and a serious scowl” as the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum put it. But like Olivier watching his operations, I was captivated by the way Thackery and his colleagues wield their scalpels against the will of God in the highly theatrical surgical theatre — the main set a monumental arena based on Thomas Eakins’s 1889 oil painting The Agnew Clinic — in Soderbergh’s intricately orchestrated long takes.
Jack Amiel and Michael Begler wrote all 10 episodes, a first for the writing team previously responsible for unsuccessful sitcoms and romantic comedies. While it’s a little pedestrian at times, their scripting is taut enough to allow Soderbergh to let his distinctive visual vernacular do the talking.
“It’s about problem solving, knowledge creation, race, class,” Soderbergh said in an interview about the series, obviously delighted by the result. “I just felt like without ever being strident, it was touching on all the issues we’re still confronting, but in a way that was fresh. And there was an opportunity, I felt, to play with what we traditionally think a period piece should feel like. I read it and felt, ‘Oh, Thackery is us.’ That guy, in that place, at that time feels like we feel now. For him, things are moving that fast. So how do we create that feeling? How do we shake the dust off of the period piece?”
And the thing about The Knick is that it feels so contemporary; there’s no sense of what the director calls “the diorama effect” of so much period drama. Soderbergh delivers something up-to-the-minute, especially with the Ebola crisis still dominating the headlines.
Soderbergh says he enjoyed the idea that the script contained no Downton Abbey- style nostalgia for the period and he shoots it with cool certainty, using a kind of monochromatic hue, blood the strongest colour. Most of the scenes are covered by his camera handheld, using wide shots, following the action, editing in the composition itself, rarely resorting to close-ups. And there are striking, noticeably low angles allowing Soderbergh to delight in what his eye finds through his viewfinder.
He used a newish system from the Red Digital Camera Company called the Red Dragon, with hi-tech sensors able to film in the darkest of situations, largely capturing the surgical carnage in natural light, complex group scenes lit by candles. Soderbergh calls it a “participatory aesthetic”, immersing us in the drama alongside his characters, not an approach normally identified with a period film. And there’s an animated, throbbing and moaning electronic score underpinning the action too, creating a mood of eerie urgency, not the dignified reminiscence of many historical dramas.
Clive Owen, left, in
above; ambulance drivers
played by Chris Sullivan and Lucas