The Knick is a gore-filled medical drama showcasing turn-of-the-20th Century medical practices at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital. The advances of the time have been drastic: “more has been learned about the treatment of the human body in the last 5 years than the previous 500”. Yet, in contrast to these grand claims it is telling that in director Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick, one of New York’s most prestigious surgeons, John Thackery (Clive Owen), would start his day in a Chinatown opium den/brothel before heading into surgery. Owen plays the distinctly unlikable Thackery with finesse, it’s a paradox that this aloof, drug addled surgeon is the kind of guy to bring us into the twentieth century, the perfect anti-hero.
As a surgeon, Thackey has chosen the most invasive of medical professions, it takes a certain type of person to ‘correct’ someone’s insides, from the opening scene we seen the gore of a failed primitive C-Section, but also the desire to improve, Thackery is willing to try everything, which often includes new medical equipment of his own design, to perform procedures that we today would consider routine. The Knick also highlights the social injustices of the time, later on, Thackery is “ordered” to appoint a new Deputy Chief, an accomplished African American surgeon named Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland). Thackery strongly objects, he feels it’s not his place to lead the way in an integrated hospital, citing public distaste, no matter of Edwards impressive credentials; ‘you can only run away and join the circus if the circus wants you’. Thackery’s is then forced due to the economic power of the benefactors of the hospital, the Robertsons: A family which is represented by Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance) Head of the Knick’s social welfare office and daughter to Captain August Robertson. Robertson, like Thackery is bringing New York into the 20th Century, yet she is doing so socially.
The soundtrack is conflicting and complimentary, featuring synth music throughout, which at first seems out of place, goes to support the growing pains of this time. The uncomfortable closeness of grime, poverty and social injustice is a constant theme throughout. From the tuberculosis ridden accommodations that hopeful immigrant families live in, to Jacob Speight the health inspector greasy bribery of from the city council, as administrator Herman Barrow remarks to Speight, ‘the poor are weaker than us’. This in contrast to the rapid industrial and scientific change makes for an uncomfortable, but realist viewing. Yet in the darkness, there is a willingness to survive and strive forward, Edwards, who, after the being insulted by Thackery, chooses to stay, much sums it up: “I’m not leaving this circus until I learn everything you have to teach.”