Remember, Remember! The Fifth of November: “Gunpowder” (2017)

When I first started seeing previews for “Gunpowder” in late 2017, I was absolutely elated. I am a massive GoT fan, and I have watched Kit Harington take the role of Jon Snow from angry teenage outsider to brooding King of the North. I was excited to see what he would do with a subject like the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and a sophisticated role like Robert Catesby. Unfortunately, my anticipation was not met with reward. The series comes across as an overly dramatic, paint by numbers production about a doomed act of rebellion.

The series begins just after the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. James I ascends the English throne and continues the bloody persecution of Catholics, spurred on by his secretary, Sir Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss), who is hellbent on removing the so-called “Catholic threat” from England altogether.  We first meet Robert Catesby as he takes Communion during a forbidden Mass ceremony at the home of Lady Dorothy Dibdale (Sian Webber), along with his cousin, Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler). Father Henry Garnet (Peter Mullan) presides over the ceremony alongside young Father Daniel Smith (Thom Ashley). During the service they are alerted by a maid that the house is surrounded by English soldiers, triggering their well-crafted safety plan to hide all signs of their Catholic faith in a matter of minutes. The steps they take to secure their religious icons and hide their priests, plus the subsequent search and seizure performed by Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley) shows us with sobering clarity just how desperate the times were for Catholics in England.

There was so much potential for this to be a phenomenal miniseries; rich subject matter, an experienced cast of actors, and a hearty budget is usually the recipe for success. Sadly, the result was disjointed. The visual aspects like the costumes, sets, and the natural landscapes are gorgeous, but not enough to save the series from itself. Most of what we know about Robert Catesby’s motivations come from his reactions to acts of violence against his Catholic family members, and his constant palming of a small painting of his deceased wife. Aside from that, we are led by the nose from one fight or torture scene to the next with very little to help us invest emotionally in the characters. I am not a lightweight when it comes to violence on screen, but “Gunpowder” shows the full monty as it relates to guts and gore. Catesby, infuriated by the senseless torture, maiming, and death of his fellow Catholics, recruits other disenfranchised members of the faith, including the famed revolutionary and inspiration of a major holiday in the UK, Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen).

Another aspect of this series that seemed promising at first was the casting. I want to highlight Liv Tyler’s performance- she flourishes in roles that require both strength and passiveness, often exuding a loveliness and stoicism that many veteran actresses struggle to embody. Every time she exposes her acting chops I am baffled by how underrated she is. Kit Harington, on the other hand, seems to be destined to play Jon Snow over and over for the rest of his life. In what was perhaps a strategic attempt to begin to move beyond his role as Jon Snow, the demeanor of his Robert Catesby bears a striking similarity to his GoT character. He is Jon Snow in 17th-century English garb. His attempt at playing a grieving father is marred by his inability to express any emotion other than outrage. He thrives in scenes where he can sling his strength and show off his swordsmanship, but his softer moments seem hollow and scripted. His masculine grandstanding is certainly exciting, but the character’s lack of depth holds this production back in a serious way.

Though “Gunpowder” has some major opportunities, it is still entertaining and worth watching. The failed Gunpowder Plot is a fascinating piece of British history that is still commemorated today, and the series prompted me to learn more about the real event. I sincerely hope Kit Harington is trying to let GoT fans down easy as he transitions into other roles; otherwise, it appears he has decided to typecast himself.

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