Breathless
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If you’re a woman with “lady problems” in London, 1961, there’s one man you want to see: Dr. Otto Powell (Jack Davenport), the brilliant, handsome, suave surgeon whose sensitivity and warmth will make you feel better about those humiliating issues. He’s got it all, it seems: a beautiful wife and son, a great social life, the respect of his peers, and a breezy attitude to go with it. His watchword: “It will all work out.”

But Dr. Powell has secrets—about his past, his after-hours activities, and his real love--and it all must be kept carefully hidden.

There are women in Dr. Powell’s life who are trying to break out of the boxes created for them by the men who control them and the society that defines them. Jean (Zoe Boyle), is a hot-blooded, working class nurse, who marries an upper class doctor but cannot please him or his family. Valerie (Pippa Haywood), is an older woman, who becomes furious when she learns of her husband’s affair with his secretary—and whose doctor, at the request of her husband, prescribes a hysterectomy and a tranquilizer to address her attitude problem. And Angela (Catherine Steadman), is a strong, smart, nurse, who must hide her family life from Otto and all of her coworkers, for fear of losing her job and her social standing.

  
 
The story, however, isn’t just about a dashing leading man. The ‘60s were a time when the moral ground for women moved like a tectonic plate beneath the ground of society. So, in this drama, you find nurses, patients in the hospital, and women in the community dealing with abuse, adultery, back-street abortions, and other issues, kept deeply buried because of the social mores of the time. You also find male doctors struggling to keep their own place in a world where women are acquiring power—and Otto tries to help them navigate it. By virtue of his job, Otto’s path crosses that of many women, and he becomes their confidante, their deliverer, and sometimes more—but it’s a risky path they take together.

Breathless may sound a bit like Mad Men meets Grey’s Anatomy, but, like many British dramas, it’s more subtle yet still powerful. Because it’s post-‘50s, most of what happens is repressed, understated, unspoken. The words most repeated are, “I can’t tell you.” But the meaning’s all there, in the non-verbal behavior: the eyes, the facial expressions, and the body language convey strength, pain, fear, and passion.

Breathless is comprised of two dovetailed stories. The first is the revelation of Otto’s secrets, present and past. If there’s a weakness in the series, it’s the thriller line, which tends to drag out and in the end is a bit disappointing. But the second story, the montage of the experiences of the women, is excellent. The mini-series format allows enough time for bright, clear, and deeply effective character development—a real contrast to the “gray” world they inhabit. It's got plenty of plot twists, and it's worth watching right down to the very last second.

Ultimately, it’s a well done period piece that fans of the thoughtful, yet intense British style of expression are likely to appreciate.

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