Sunday, 21 February 2016

Black Sails by Levine & Steinberg

Black Sails comes from the same studio, Starz, which is responsible for Spartacus. It's a pirate saga and at first, as we watch two sailing ships joined in battle on the open sea, I was concerned that we might not be in for the same impressive levels of female nudity as featured on Spartacus. 

I need not have worried though; the pirate ship was soon anchoring in port and the crew was off to the local brothel. And indeed, before episode one had concluded we could shout "ahoy" to some girl-on-girl action. The brothel locale also allows for an episode featuring one of the finest screen credits ever — 'Hand Job Pirate'.

Lest it seems that I'm wholly preoccupied with Black Sails for its admirably prurient content, I must hastily add that it's brilliantly written. Created by Robert Levine and Jonathan E. Steinberg (who previously worked together on the TV series Jericho, which Steinberg created), Black Sails is an intelligent and beautifully fashioned drama. 

For a start, it is deeply concerned with the politics and economics of piracy, which is something I've never seen on screen before. The first three episodes are written by Levine & Steinberg and they've done a marvellous job — although, chaps, no buccaneer in 1715 would use the word "input".

Two out of three of the first episodes are directed by Neil Marshall, who is very similar to Danny Cannon in that he's a British director whose work on the big screen never moved me greatly, who then went on to carve out a truly illustrious career in American television. 

Marshall has also directed for Game of Thrones and Hannibal. His work here is impressive, though in episode one it's not sufficiently clear that the pirate's "fence" Richard Guthrie (Sean Cameron Michael) is wounded by a stray shot, or that his daughter Eleanor (Hannah New) is bruised — important plot points, both.
The show looks absolutely ravishing — pale blue sea, golden beaches, silver palm fronds in the moonlight, the green silk wall paper in a whore's bedroom...  the colours are so gorgeous that I am longing to see it on Blu-ray. The outstanding production design is by Wolf Kroeger, a distinguished talent who won a Bafta for his work on Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans. The cinematography is by Lukas Ettlin and Jules O'Loughlin.
The story is brought to life by a smashing cast led by a swashbuckling Toby Stephens (who has played James Bond in BBC radio adaptions of Ian Fleming), an engagingly weaselly Luke Arnold and a smouldering Jessica Parker Kennedy. The excellent music is by Bear McCreary, now working on Agents of Shield and Outlander.

I just love Black Sails — and even forgive it for having achingly anachronistic phrases like "shorthand" and "time frame" in the dialogue. It has the finest sea battle I've ever seen on screen in episode V — there's also a fine one in episode VIII — and I'm so impressed I won't mention dialogue like "Incoming" and "Fire at zero range". Oh, whoops — I just did... Never mind, this is a terrific show even on the basis of its short first season, and promises still greater things — on top of everything else, it turns out that it's a sly and carefully crafted prequel to Treasure Island. Great viewing ahoy. Set sail, me hearties...

(Image credits: The clever suggestive-of-skull-and-crossbones poster is from Imp Awards. The skeletal ship is from Fast Co Create where there's an interesting article about the title sequence. The shot of New and Kennedy together is from Screen Rant. The solo shot of Parker looking so fetching among the bedclothes is from the very useful Black Sails Wikia. The portrait of her is from Pinterest. The army of skeletons — yay! — is from Sinful Celluloid.)

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