Peaky Blinders season 6’s brilliant slow-burn and Cillian Murphy’s stunning performance show exactly how bad the first casting choice for Tommy was.
Peaky Blinders season 6 saw the end of the iconic TV show – albeit with the promise of the upcoming movie – and the evolution of Tommy Shelby’s character in the final season highlights just how close the showrunners came to a big casting mistake. Since its first season back in 2013, Peaky Blinders has slowly built up a worldwide audience and become a cultural phenomenon. The success of the show gave Cillian Murphy his signature role, but it very nearly went to another actor.
Over the first 5 seasons of Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby had quite a journey. Returning from World War One he plotted and toiled to turn his neighborhood gang into a major player in post-war England, constantly fighting off rival mobsters, police, politicians, and his own demons in the process. While Peaky Blinders season 6 was criticized for a slower approach and less explosive drama, the more intimate portrait into Tommy Shelby’s mind as he wrestled not only with his demons but also new challenges with his crutch – Helen McCrory’s Polly Gray – taken out of the picture so tragically.
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Having been betrayed at the end of Peaky Blinders season 5, the new season saw Tommy surrounded by enemies at every turn, including within the family. Without Aunt Polly around to offer guidance, Tommy was more isolated than ever in Peaky Blinders. And while Cillian Murphy does a tremendous job of bringing Tommy to life, he wasn’t series creator Steven Knight’s first choice. Instead, Jason Statham was actually nearly cast as Tommy Shelby, having worked with Knight on the movie Hummingbird. Knight felt that Statham had the required physicality to play the Birmingham crime boss, and it was only scheduling conflicts on other projects that prevented him from taking the role. In the meantime though, Knight was persuaded by Cillian Murphy that he could play Tommy Shelby and has since proven beyond any doubt that his casting was the right choice, particularly in season 6’s slow-burn approach.
Cillian Murphy’s performance is Peaky Blinders season 6’s secret weapon. Even as the show focused away from the rest of the Shelby family – to some pronounced criticism at times – Murphy’s compelling, haunted take on Tommy Shelby shone through brilliantly. Robbed of the dependable foundations of Polly, his seemingly invincible position of power, and the untouchable stability of his family (buoyed by his desire to eventually “get out”), Tommy ended up like a rat trapped in a corner. His health was seemingly stolen from him, his political allies sought to control him against his better morals, and his fears about a mole working against him in his operation were confirmed to be true. All of this was set against Tommy’s bloody rivalry with Michael Gray, an escalation of his PTSD, and his increasing fear of the influence of supernatural forces: in short, Tommy was not the physically terrifying character that expectations of his character may have assumed he’d need to be back in the early days. He was not, fundamentally, a character who should have been played by someone favoured for his physicality as Jason Statham was.
How Jason Statham Would Have Changed Peaky Blinders
Jason Statham has carved a successful career as a hard-as-nails action hero. He’s very good at what he does, but his range doesn’t naturally extend to the vulnerability and levels of nuance that Cillian Murphy’s brought to the Peaky Blinders role. Tommy is an extremely complex character who evolved over multiple seasons. Murphy can balance Tommy’s calculated brutality with his calm exterior, being a charismatic man-of-the-people, all while his mental state is deteriorating through grief and PTSD. As an acting challenge, it’s a tightrope more suited to Murphy’s sensibilities. Jason Statham’s style and skills meanwhile are more akin to an Arthur Shelby-type role; he’d be great exuding a barely contained volatile demeanor that could blow at any second.
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Andrew is a Movies/TV Features writer for Screen Rant who has loved and studied movies since the heyday of video rentals and recording films off the telly. Residing in England with his wife and two daughters, when he’s not watching movies he enjoys illustrating and creative writing.
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