Amazon's Carnival Row Season 1 Review

Jack the Ripper vs Fairies by way of Guillermo del Toro

by Casimir Harlow

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Amazon strikes gold with this atmospheric and adult neo-noir fantasy, eliciting surprisingly strong central performances from Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne and still wearing the trappings of its Guillermo del Toro-crafted origins.

Carnival Row is the tale of a Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer hunting down fairies in a fantasy steampunk turn-of-the-century-ish Victorian realm, with a grizzled human detective and an embittered fairy warrior on his bloody trail. There's so much in there that could go wrong that it's almost surprising it was ever greenlit, but with Amazon busy beavering on a Lord of the Rings TV series, and both Guillermo del Toro and Legendary (The Expanse, Pacific Rim, Jurassic World, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) attached to the show, somehow the end result is likely everything you could have possibly hoped for from this atypical premise. And maybe even more.

The end result is likely everything you could have possibly hoped for from the atypical premise

Set in an Age where fairies have been exiled from their homeworld by a vicious race of humans, Carnival Row follows beleaguered inspector Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom, at an easy career high and a long way from Pirates of the Caribbean) policing a colourful but ruined city where a few fairy survivors exist, albeit largely discriminated against by the humans who live there. Shattering the already uneasy balance in this impoverished realm, a spate of vicious attacks perpetrated against fairies lead the inspector down a dark rabbit hole to reveal a festering corruption that threatens to tear the city apart. And to further complicate matters is the appearance of Vignette Stonemoss, a fairy and ex-soldier (Cara Delevingne, also on strong form) who he fought with - and loved - in the war, and who thought he had died long ago, opening up old wounds for the both of them as they navigate the incendiary landscape together.
Carnival Row Season 1
Carnival Row does a superb job setting the scene, painting a grim picture of slaughtered fairies trapped and mutilated on nets, and hunted down by a gun-toting army with rabid bear-dogs on their tracks. It hardly gets any better when we reach the titular 'Row', a part of town notorious for its 'freaks' - the so-called Critches that work as servants or populate the brothels; indentured for years to pay for safe passage from their wartorn homeworld.

It's also heavily entrenched with political allegory, mixing in more than obvious hints of Trump administration prejudice, go-home Brexit attitude, and general 'they're stealing my job' immigrant hatred - as well as a fair portion of #MeToo posturing, not least in the all-female oppressed fairy race who are put upon from every angle by mankind. That said, it's easy enough to let the politics wash over you, and instead bathe in the rich opulence of the setting, revelling in the grim atmosphere replete with violent murders, aerial fairy sex, and rampant Cockney swearing.

There's also a solid supporting cast to colour in the peripherals, with Chernobyl's Jared Harris on strong form as a pro-integration politician - with a penchant for fairies - caught up battling the anti-immigration movement, Game of Thrones' Indira Varma as his ostensibly loyal wife who has her own agenda, The OA's Alice Krige as an old witch who 'works' for both of them, and Hit & Miss' Karla Crome as a fairy working in a brothel, and best friend to the main protagonist. Of course, it's Delevingne's Vignette and Bloom's 'Philo' who drive the proceedings, and they are both on strong form, with a fair amount of simmering love/hate chemistry to build on in later episodes (even if the initial 'hate' seems less than convincing as to the way it will pan out). Certainly, given some of their filmography (Delevingne was a highlight in Besson's messy Valerian), this is an easy career high for the both of them and, hopefully, they'll stick around for the duration.

Violent, visceral and surprisingly compelling - in spite of an abundance of underlying politics - it's well worth checking out

Running at eight 50 minute episodes (again, search the hell out of Amazon to find it in 4K HDR - "Carnival Row UHD" works; "Carnival Row 4K" doesn't appear to yield any appropriate results - although, whilst often looking spectacular, it has almost Netflix Dolby Vision levels of darkness to it), Carnival Row hooks you right from the outset, and hints at a much bigger story to tell - particularly in its flashbacks to The War - so it's something of a relief to know that a second season has already been greenlit (there's no way 8 episodes can tell a complete story here).

It's got hints of Penny Dreadful about it, as well as the Elseworlds realms that Batman explored, like Batman/Houdini, Gotham by Gaslight and Master of the Future, as well as the Jack the Ripper tale, From Hell, all blended in with just about the most gritty rendition of fairies you could imagine, hundred-year-old warriors trained in fighting, and slaughtered by the thousands, adding a steampunk vibe to the proceedings; just enough fantasy to give it that Guillermo del Toro vibe (he was on-board as writer, exec producer and director, but had to drop the last two in the eleventh hour due to scheduling conflicts, but it still has his fingerprints all over it - in a good way), with hints of both Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth around the edges. Hell, it even occasionally feels like a Victorian era cousin to Netflix's visually opulent adaptation of Altered Carbon. This certainly bodes well for Amazon's Lord of the Rings.

Bathed in sumptuous trappings and wielding an atmospherically dark vibe, this is strong adult entertainment, making the most out of an unlikely neo-noir fantasy combo, and serving it all up in 4K. Violent, visceral and surprisingly compelling - in spite of an abundance of not-so-underlying politics - it's well worth checking out.

Scores

Verdict

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8
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AVForumsSCORE
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