How to Be Strong
By Diana-Teodora Gaitan | June 9, 2021
Magazine Reporter Diana pays tribute to the English actress Helen McCrory following her death on April 16 and how McCrory’s role as Polly Gray in Peaky Blinders was one of her first role models as a teenager.
Transitioning from middle school to high school was quite a tough time for me. I was separated from my two best friends and I felt very lonely. Our passion for cinema was the glue of our friendship; indeed, we were quite the film critics. We started watching Peaky Blinders, this new series with a group of British actors to crush on. The murky atmosphere of the period crime drama resonated deeply with our states of mind. It felt like we had been living in a giant soap bubble that someone popped with a needle. We had to learn how to stand on our own two feet, in new environments.
While male characters are at the forefront of the narrative, Peaky Blinders still has quite a list of badass women. Of these, the one who shines brightest is the matriarch, Polly Gray. At first you might feel like Thomas Shelby is the most powerful leader in the show, but then you realise that Polly is the one who knows all of his weaknesses and strengths. She is the one he can never contradict, the one who manages the family business, the one who always knows what to do and how to solve the conflicts among members of her gang. Her main quality is that she is calculating. In times of hardship, Thomas eventually breaks down, but Polly continues to assert herself.
She was the first woman I saw in a series that clearly stood out to me for her power and intelligence. In a way that is quite sad, considering that I was about 15 by the time Peaky Blinders premiered. The fact that she was surrounded by tough men and still found ways to outperform them was what made my friends and I become Polly’s fans.
Although watching her being a rebel onscreen was empowering, one must of course keep in mind that Polly is still a murderer in the show. But is her dark side sufficient to discredit her character? More recently, we have seen another example of a strong woman who is left with no other option but to harm those who put her loved ones in danger. In Promising Young Woman (2020), Cassandra is forced to take matters into her own hands since the authorities have done nothing to avenge the death of her friend. Polly and Cassandra are not only minking their way in a male-dominated society. They are complex characters undergoing continuous development, relying only on their own power. That is what makes them inspiring.
Could anyone have built a stronger character for Polly than Helen McCrory? I highly doubt that. As tribute after her passing, her husband, Damian Lewis, published a 1000 word essay about the love of his life. He described her as heroic, a woman who abounded in fearlessness and who instilled that in her children and family. The people in the Peaky Blinders casting department surely did a fantastic job.
“Why should the boys have all the fun?” – Polly Gray, Peaky Blinders (2013)