Kit Harington miniseries 'Gunpowder' doesn't fully ignite

If you have an appetite for British history, torture and Kit Harington -- in roughly that order -- then "Gunpowder" i...

Posted: Dec 19, 2017 4:30 AM
Updated: Dec 19, 2017 4:30 AM

If you have an appetite for British history, torture and Kit Harington -- in roughly that order -- then "Gunpowder" is the miniseries for you. For viewers, it's a relatively small investment, told in three one-hour installments. For HBO, it's a shrewd and calculated one, picking up a project produced by and starring one of its "Game of Thrones" stalwarts.

Handsomely mounted, "Gunpowder" reaches back to 1605, when England's King James I and his Protestant minions persecuted the country's Catholic subjects, seeking to root them out using the most aggressive of methods.

That prompted an ill-fated rebellion known as the Gunpowder Plot, with Harington as Robert Catesby -- a devout Catholic nobleman who decides to fight back -- and Tom Cullen ("Downton Abbey," as well as the current History show "Knightfall") as Guy Fawkes, the fellow immortalized by, among other things, those way-cool masks from "V For Vendetta."

Catesby, notably, goes against the wishes of his more cautious father (Peter Mullan), and has support from his cousin (Liv Tyler, without much to do except model the period frocks).

The king, meanwhile, is being prodded to act by Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss), a humpbacked enforcer who is determined to eradicate Catholicism by any means necessary, which includes subjecting practitioners to hideous deaths and creative means of interrogation every time he apprehends one.

While historically accurate, that doesn't make "Gunpowder" a picnic to watch, or do enough to flesh out the characters. Catesby, for example, is distant from his son because of his wife's death, a wrinkle that ultimately doesn't add much to the central story of plotting against the government.

Fawkes (whose role here is relatively minor) became an enduring symbol of the battle against tyranny, and Harington brings a personal connection to the project. The actor is distantly related to Catesby, a promotable wrinkle that explains his interest, without doing much to enhance it in other quadrants.

HBO didn't really hide the obligatory aspect of acquiring this BBC production by scheduling it over successive nights right before the holidays. While some might charitably see that as a welcome gust of original programming, it plays more like a way of briefly bringing Harington to his fans, helping tide them over until the next bracing wintry flurry of you-know-what comes.

"Gunpowder" premieres Dec. 18 at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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