'Gunpowder' is Kit Harington's violent vanity project

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Kit Harington in Gunpowder (Photo: HBO)

Kit Harington has used his fame as Jon Snow to produce Gunpowder, a three-part HBO drama, about one of his 17th-century ancestors. The Game of Thrones star portrays Robert Catesby here, a Catholic insurgent who led the so-called Gunpowder Plot, to blow up the House of Lords and kill the Protestant king of England, James I. In the miniseries, Harington, who’s related to Catesby on his mother’s side, is just as broodingly poker-faced as he is in Thrones — it’s a very sincere vanity project. He may not have range, but he’s a great advertisement for grim endurance.

Gunpowder makes the persecuted Catholics the daring heroes of this drama, with Catesby teaming up with a cadre of dissidents, including the better-known Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen). (The radical Fawkes exists primarily in pop culture today in the mask of his face that’s used throughout the 1982 graphic novel V for Vendetta.) As written by Ronan Bennett and directed by J Blakeson, Gunpowder has a lot of flashy sword-fighting and knife-stabbing. It also has so many scenes of explicit torture, and the production caused something of an uproar when it first aired in the United Kingdom in October.

Just to prepare you, a number of Catholics — despised “papists,” viewed as traitors to their country — are shown suffering various fates at the hands of the Protestant government. They are hung, stretched on racks, and crushed between large iron plates. One luckless Catholic is hung, then his intestines are pulled from his body, then he’s dismembered, and then he’s beheaded. After all this, the dunking of the head in a vat of hot oil seems a tad much. Remember, it’s not TV — it’s HBO.

All is not encouragement to avert your eyes, however. The bulk of Gunpowder is a reasonably exciting costume drama combining history and suspense, with fine performances by Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss as the King’s vindictive secretary of state and Peter Mullan (Top of the Lake, Ozark) as Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest sympathetic to Catesby’s efforts. While I wouldn’t recommend Gunpowder as something around which to gather the family as you sip holiday eggnog, it’s certainly well done and harshly engaging.

Part 1 of Gunpowder is available now on demand. Part 2 premieres Dec. 19 at 10 p.m. on HBO, followed by Part 3 at 10 p.m. on Dec. 20.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: