Carnival Row Episodes 1 – 4: Magnificent World-Building

"Carnaval Row" Ep101 D22/38 Photo: Jan Thijs 2017While not everything is up to such a high standard, we have been spoiled over the past few years with some really sophisticated television shows that can be superior to anything the cinema gives us. As production values soar and often equal those of cinema (as suggested way back in the days of Babylon 5, CGI has been a great leveller between silver screen and home), television has used its great advantage of running-time to great effect- indeed, the serialisation of so many film franchises is an example of cinema heeding this fact and mimicking television. It could well be argued that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really episodic storytelling for the silver screen.

As far as production value goes, most of these new television shows are not cheap, and largely owe their existence to non-Network channels, such as HBO or streaming providers like Netflix and Amazon. The biggest of them all, apparently, is The Lord of the Rings series from Amazon, which is set to commence shooting in New Zealand early next year. What I have heard of its scale and ambition, that show may well break the wall (to borrow a line from BR2049) between the worlds of television and cinema, and so prove there is no distinction between the two at all. We may even be past that point already, depending upon how one views such epics as Game of Thrones or Westworld or Altered Carbon.  It may ultimately not even be a Good Thing, either, as I’d suggest that good storytelling can often benefit from limitations. Good drama depends more upon good characters and conflict, rather than hordes of CGI armies and spectacle. Too often have good movies been spoiled by reliance on spectacle simply because they are perceived to need to be a blockbuster, to draw audiences in for some new sense of scale in action and visuals. Without access to all such visual splendour, traditional genre television has had to rely on more old-fashioned stuff like good storytelling, characterisation etc

carival4Latest of Amazon’s offerings is Carnival Row, an eight-episode series starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne. Its a Victorian steampunk fantasy that is visually arresting: giving it the ‘look’ of a lavish period drama, and then populating it with strange steampunk tech and fantasy creatures such as horned/hoofed satyrs (the Pucks) and dragonfly-winged fairies (the Fae), Centaurs, Trolls, and even a Cthulhu-like monster lurking in the underground maze of the sewers, is something of a masterstroke. But what I found really impressive is its world-building: instead of drawing attention to all the more fantastic visual elements, instead it is offered up as something ordinary, even mundane. The remarkable is simply unremarkable. Moreover, the dialogue is wonderfully dense at times, referencing races, objects, religions, places, and not feeling the need to explain them- they are instead almost offhand details that add a sense of depth and colour to the piece. Rather than explain everything we see and hear, we are left to pick up the pieces ourselves. On the one hand, it is mostly incidental; we can follow the plot regardless, but for anyone wishing to go the extra mile, so to speak, it offers another level of meaning and detail to that plot. Its Tolkien by way of Charles Dickens.

Inevitably, Carnival Row is a drama of its time. At its heart it is a blatant allegory of mass migration, its economic impact and resultant racism and bigotry familiar to most news reports of our day. The various fantastical races of this fantasy -the Pucks, the Fae and the other bizarre creatures, have been displaced by the carnage of war between competing human nations fighting over the mineral wealth of their Old World that dates back long before humans came into the world. The Pact, the victorious human nation, has slaughtered most of the Fae and forced any survivors to either flee or perish as their villages and homes are destroyed. The Burgue, the human nation that lost the war and whose armies have retreated to its own land, has granted some manner of sanctuary for the creatures, with many of them settling into Carnival Row, something of a ghetto of disrepute and a melting-pot for the various races, traditions and religions.

carnival1Here Human, Puck, Fae, Centaur and Troll manage to keep some manner of peace but the tensions are high.  The Burgue’s central government is split between those who wish to maintain sanctuary for the migrant races and those who fear the alien outsiders that are perceived as taking worker’s jobs and spreading crime and disease. An aristocratic family formerly of wealth and good standing but now on the cusp of bankruptcy and poverty, are horrified when a rich Puck businessman moves next door and threatens to bring down the neighbourhood.  A young Fae, Vignette Stonemoss (Delevingne), the sole survivor of a ship that fled her homeland with refugees, is forced into servitude to pay back the money she owes for her passage to ‘freedom’. A streetwise police inspector, Rycroft Philostrate (Bloom) is, unlike most of the police, sympathetic to the plight of Carnival Row’s more colourful denizens and has to circumvent the indifference (and outright hostility) of his superiors when trying to solve a series of bloody and horrible murders in the Row.

The art direction is wondrous, the set designs richly designed and quite elegant. The sense of period lends a reality to everything that makes some of the fantastical elements all the more convincing. Coupled with the beautiful cinematography (which looks really amazing in 4K UHD, with lovely use of HDR) these sets and costumes are a joy to behold. Its really quite cinematic and quite convincing. There is a genuine sense of place, and reality. The casting and acting is really fine, too, with an interesting use of accents bringing another layer of detail to it.

I’m really enjoying it, and so soon after The Boys aired, its clear that Amazon is really moving up a gear with some of its original shows -indeed, perhaps only now are we seeing the results of its increasing investment into the gathering streaming wars. I was rather indifferent to the prospects for Amazons Lord of the Rings show, but on the strength of these two most recent series, my interest has been raised.

 

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