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‘The Knick’: Steven Soderbergh Recasts ‘House’ with Clive Owen

'The Knick': Steven Soderbergh Recasts 'House' with Clive Owen

The Knick” is “House, M.D.” set in
1900, a medical drama about a brilliant, junkie doctor, an American played by a
charismatic British actor. Clive Owen’s character, John Thackery, might have
been an ancestor of Hugh Laurie’s House, right down to his impatience with
fools and preference for prostitutes over messy emotional entanglements. And while
Steven Soderbergh’s brisk direction, visual audacity and attention to the nuances
of acting — his characters reveal much more than their words express — elevate the
series,  “The Knick” never
quite overcomes its contrived stories and scripts. The series builds in strength
as it goes along; I’ve seen seven of the season’s 10 episodes, and was
fascinated after two. But you have to overlook a lot of hoary elements to get
there. So far “The Knick”  (on
Cinemax) is a conventional hospital drama dressed up in period clothes.

It is, like “House,” terrific as conventional dramas
go. The hospital known as The Knick is a place of dark but
glistening corridors and jaw-dropping medical treatments. A former girlfriend
of Thackery’s is helped by having her arm temporarily grafted onto her nose. The
Lower East Side of New York is depicted as a place of muddy streets, dingy
bars and horse-drawn carriages which the wealthy use to escape to their more
graceful, Edith Wharton worthy homes.

Soderbergh’s best choice might have been casting Owen as the
driven surgeon always pushing for new discoveries. Thackery is tough,
self-indulgent and flawed, yet Owen displays a depth of humanity — and an as
yet unexplained pain — that engages our sympathy. The rakishly disheveled hair doesn’t
hurt; what good is a genius doctor in a medical series if he’s not also devilishly
sexy?  

And he is at center of some amazing set pieces that
Soderbergh stages with flair while maintaining a sense of period realism. The
first episode includes a stunning scene in which Thackery’s mentor frantically
tries to save a pregnant woman’s life in the operating room, where men in suits
observe from the bleachers (you realize why it’s called an operating theater),
while blood gushes everywhere.

In one of the strongest and most subtle subplots, Thackery
is gradually developing a delicate relationship with Lucy, a young nurse from West
Virginia. They did not get off to an auspicious start. In agonized withdrawal from
the liquid cocaine that allows him to function, he had to ask her to inject a
syringe into his penis. (He later apologized; he may be a mess, but he’s a gentleman.)
Eve Hewson gives a lovely performance as Lucy, who’s both shy and daring, and secretly
tough enough to handle Thackery.

But Soderbergh has often been reckless in choosing
screenplays, as he is here. When he has a fresh and sparkling script, as he did
with Richard LaGravanese’s “Behind the Candelabra“, it supports all his
strengths. If it’s weak, you get the promising but in the end banal thriller “Side
Effects.”

 “The Knick,” created and written by Jack Amiel and
Michael Begler, casts too much contemporary, often smug knowledge on the past.
There is Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), a rich young woman who serves on the hospital’s board; she conspicuously bristles at her fiance’s assumption that she will quit this trivial work when they marry. There is the talented black surgeon, Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), whom she insists the
hospital hire as Thackeray’s deputy. There is an unlikely, unrepentant abortionist
who helps impoverished women. Sexism, racism, reproductive rights – all the
boxes are checked. Any one of those plots might have worked to allow some light
from the future to illuminate all that turn-of-the-20th-century darkness. Together,
they make “The Knick” overwrought. The brutal yet casual racism faced
by the black doctor feels real; the fact that he exists in this
series feels forced.

In the end, Soderbergh and Owen together create a series
alluring enough to make its flaws seem like pesky disappointments rather
than fatal problems. And the series has already been renewed for a second
season. Most series get more forced and overloaded as they go along. “The
Knick” started there, which leaves room for it to relax into its characters and its
dramatic strengths, to stop trying so hard to be relevant, to evolve from good to
great. 

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