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Review: ‘The Knick,’ Steven Soderbergh’s Master Class in Historical Fiction

Review: 'The Knick,' Steven Soderbergh's Master Class in Historical Fiction

Cinemax’s new original series, “The Knick,” introduces its subject with a rush of blood: surgical dressing soaked in it, hands and scrubs stained by it, glass bottles overflowing with it. A failed Cesarean section transforms the pristine operating room at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital into a battlefield where the notion of progress confronts the limits of knowledge, but for all the attention paid to the series’ gruesomely honest depiction of medicine, bowel resections and the treatment of aortic aneurysms are not the reason you should be watching. Far beyond the confines of the surgical field, Steven Soderbergh’s immersive work of art redefines the aesthetic possibilities of the period drama.   

READ MORE: How Steven Soderbergh Made ‘The Knick’ Must-See TV

From the outset, as Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) emerges from an opium den’s scarlet haze into the gray light of lower Manhattan in the year 1900, “The Knick” establishes the bold style at the heart of its appeal. While the camera chases Thackery’s horse-drawn carriage through the city’s labyrinthine streets, Cliff Martinez’s anachronistic score, close kin to his work in “Contagion,” sends a cold, electronic thrum over the soundtrack — a murmur of approaching modernity attuned to a moment in our past defined by its obsession with the future. (Press Play’s Jed Mayer has a deeper dive into the music here.) Like the anxious wail of Jonny Greenwood’s score for “There Will Be Blood,” or the unfussy prose of Hilary Mantel’s novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” “The Knick” wallops the viewer with a reminder that history’s residents experienced the past as we experience the present: with startling immediacy.

Soderbergh’s crystalline, mobile photography rejects the gauzy romanticism that so often comprises portraits of the distant past. During one surgical procedure, in the second episode, the camera circles the operating table until the moment of incision, with its fatal spurt of blood. We follow streetcars, bicyclists, and pedestrians at close range, too, or huddle near elbows and knees to listen in on a conversation, bumping into history as if the compositions were busy intersections filled with jostling crowds. The most arresting formal gambit so far is the dreamy back-alley fight sequence involving Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), a talented black surgeon hired by The Knick against Thackery’s racist wishes. The series of extreme close-ups has us practically resting on Edwards’ shoulder, rather than looking over it. Here, as elsewhere, “The Knick” strives for the headlong plunge, setting us down in turn-of-the-century New York rather than framing it from retrospect’s high angle.

Alas, as The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum recently pointed out, writers Jack Amiel and Michael Beglar offer an unfortunate history lesson of their own. The census rolls, church registers, and account ledgers from which we reconstruct the past often hold its inhabitants at arm’s length, reducing whole individuals to a few spare bits of data, and “The Knick” replicates this dearth of information by allowing its characters to become archetypes. In addition to the surgeons, there’s progressive “New Woman” Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance); the naive country nurse (Eve Hewson); the corrupt hospital manager (Jeremy Bobb); the vulgar, Irish ambulance driver (Chris Sullivan); the nun (Cara Seymour), the health inspector (David Fierro), and the philanthropic magnate (Grainger Hines). Particularly with regard to the immigrants and African Americans populating the series’ substrata, lent all the human interest of dots on a map, the characters often seem as schematic as a college textbook. 

Archetypes have their uses, though, especially in the breach, and the second episode’s juxtaposition of Cornelia and Algernon preparing for the day brilliantly illustrates the boundaries of her liberalism. Though the Robertsons fancy Algernon “a member of the family” — his father is the carriage driver, his mother the cook — he’s left to his own devices in a run-down tenement, while Miss Social Welfare herself needs the help of two servants to get dressed. Another engaging interlude features Algernon duly impressed by the laundress he hires for his underground surgical practice, suturing chicken skin more deftly than any surgeon. Such glimpses of the rich narrative material at hand remain too infrequent, but “The Knick” is capable of mustering strong stuff.  

LISTEN: Screen Talk: Soderbergh’s ‘The Knick,’ Why Filmmakers Are Heading to TV, and More

Indeed, Nussbaum glosses “The Knick” too quickly as “a Great Man tale, studded with lurid thrills,” for it’s the visual and sonic idioms that deliver the “meditation on the stop-and-start nature of surgical innovation” she seeks. Thackery’s eulogy for former chief of surgery J.M. Christensen (Matt Frewer), who commits suicide after the botched C-section, lays out the series’ thematic thrust a bit forthrightly for my taste, but the bracing aesthetic more than makes good on Thackery’s promise. “We now live in a time of endless possibility,” he bellows. “I will not stop pushing forward into a hopeful future, and with every blow I land, every extra year I give to a patient, I will… know that at the very least, something, however temporary, has been won.” 

In the admixture of modern technique and period texture, as in the uneasy coexistence of scientific advancement — surgery, electricity, the vacuum, the phonograph — and retrograde politics, “The Knick” expresses a central paradox of the age it depicts, which was to believe in the endless possibility of the future while recognizing that each blow landed is but temporary. Ultimately, in form if not always in (narrative) function, “The Knick” attempts to understand how people experience what later generations may celebrate as “progress,” or condemn as the absence thereof, when history to those living it is a bloody, seething thing, always knocking you senseless. 

“The Knick” airs Fridays at 10pm ET on Cinemax.

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