Written by Julia Raeside


Patients get more than a nick in Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick

Sky Atlantic’s new medical drama may test the queasy tummies among us, but Julia Raeside reckons it’s worth watching – even if you have to do some of it through your fingers

Do you like blood? It’s a straightforward question but an important one where Sky Atlantic’s visceral new period drama is concerned. For The Knick is set in a New York hospital (The Knickerbocker – hence the title) at the turn of last century when modern surgery was in its infancy.

Yes, they had anesthetic, but they were still very much at the trial-and-error stage of pioneering new treatments for their ailing patients. So the blood question is a bit of a deal-breaker. If you can’t abide gore, this isn’t for you.

It’s a bit Knickerbocker Gory, if you will. Come on, it was just sitting there.

Doctor John Thackery is played by Clive Owen doing his finest old New York accent and sporting the kind of enormous moustache that lets you know he’s charge.

Juliet Rylance as Cornelia Robertson
©HBO Enterprises

Juliet Rylance plays the hospital’s head of welfare, Cornelia Robertson, providing at least one female character actually given some status other than wife, daughter or patient. It is a constant struggle with period drama. However modern the approach, attention must be paid to the diminished role of women in the early 20th century. They can’t just parachute in a far-fetched female character to please modern sensibilities. But Robertson, because she is wealthy and has influence, is the next best thing.

Caption: Eve Hewson as Lucy Elkins
©HBO Enterprises

She takes on Thackery at every turn and not just so they can have some sexy tension. And by the same (ahem) token, Andre Holland co-stars as Doctor Algernon Edwards, the new deputy chief of surgery whom Thackery refuses to accept because he’s black.

All 10 episodes of this first series are directed by Steven Soderbergh of Behind the Candelabra and Erin Brockovich fame and it combines period detail with that hand-held, brightly-lit look that Soderbergh so often favours.

In fact the lighting in this is positively clinical because he doesn’t want you to miss a second of the queasy forensic detail. As with so many recent period dramas including Boardwalk Empire and Peaky Blinders, modern music replaces the expected old-fashioned soundtrack to create an uneasy but throbbingly energetic feel.

Despite the frenetic direction and superb production design, there is so much of this first episode I’d rather not have seen, including the extensive and incredibly realistic surgical close-ups. The camera doesn’t shy away from anything whether it’s a cesarean section, an infected abdominal drain or a spinal block injection. You will have to stomach an awful lot of butchery, a cocktail of bodily fluids and scenes which would make Sweeney Todd push his pie away in disgust.

And like every good box set anti-hero, Thackery has his own dark secret. He’s a raging smack fiend. He juggles his time in neatly-pressed scrubs with extensive private sessions slumped on the velveteen couch of the local opium den, sticking syringe needles between his toes for fun.

This is the only time the lighting changes to a deep, intravenous red. Then of course he needs industrial quantities of cocaine to balance out the effects of the opium. Towards the end of the first episode, a colleague is forced to assist him medically in a truly unspeakable way, which I can’t bring myself to type. Indeed it’s the only time the camera does shy away from a direct shot, for which we can only be grateful.

As you may be able to gather, The Knick is quite the ride for your eyeballs. It does look brilliant and Owen establishes himself as quite a different presence now he’s taken on his first elder statesman-like role. It really suits him. There’s such a lot to like about The Knick (if like is the right word) but it’s best you come to it once you’ve safely digested your dinner.

* Series one of The Knick begins on Sky Atlantic on Thursday, October 16.

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Written by Julia Raeside

Julia loves TV and writes about it for the Guardian and other people. She also enjoys talking on the radio which she mostly does for the BBC.