Steven Soder­bergh re­turns to TV with an ul­tra-real med­i­cal drama set in the gritty New York of 1900

The Weekend Australian - Review - - TELEVISION -

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

Pa­paelias, be­low

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