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‘Carnival Row’: Amazon’s ambitious Victorian fantasy/sci-fi starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne has a murky concept but quickly finds its footing.

By Tim Goodman

August 19, 2019

Amazon is pushing resolutely into the world of sci-fi and fantasy (in large part because Jeff Bezos is a genre fan), and its latest attempt to capture an audience with an epic story, Carnival Row, mixes deep mythological elements with a creatively bleak, timeless setting (recalling the Victorian era) and contemporary issues of race, class, immigration and sexual identity. It’s all ambitiously mashed together.

No doubt Carnival Row will be compared lazily and inaccurately to Game of Thrones, which of course it can’t live up to. But that’s the pigeonholed world we live in.

The former movie script from Travis Beacham (Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams) is somewhat murky in its interests and backstory, and has been broadened with the help of co-creator and writer Rene Echevarria (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), as they patch together various, often disparate influences under the “fantasy” umbrella. It takes a few episodes for the series to introduce and spin out this cobbled mythology — and that will undoubtedly lose some people — but ultimately it works when it gets going. Carnival Row has a strong cast and if you’re in the open-minded mood to see how humans, fairies and inter-species creations fight to get along in a dark world of magical realism and Jack the Ripper-era British police tactics — replete with political machinations, an otherworldly serial killing spree and disparate tribes of combatants — then this is precisely your stew.

Orlando Bloom plays Rycroft Philostrate, a detective in The Burgue, which resembles a Victorian metropolis with a steampunk feel mixed into the dark, muddy streets, where people are openly carving up pigs (and each other). Much of this is held together and given some sense of connective tissue to the world that director Thor Freudenthal brings to life in the first two episodes, helping set the template for the look to come. (Part of the appeal clearly lies in thinking, “OK, what the hell is this world about and when/where is it set?”) The Burgue once supported the fae, a collection of fairies in their native country of Tirnanoc, who were being overrun by The Pact, a nebulous group of nation-states that are dangerously powerful. The Pact captures Tirnanoc when The Burgue pulls out, creating a refugee crisis.

Philo, as he’s known, fell in love with Vignette (Cara Delevingne), a fierce fae librarian-turned-fighter during the war. When she’s one of the last to flee The Pact years later and head to The Burgue, they reunite (not pleasantly, since she thought he was dead all those years) in an effort to uncover the multiple forces tearing The Burgue apart.

If you’re not into fantasy, that probably seems a real hodgepodge of mythos, but Carnival Row succeeds precisely because it’s different (and looks expensive while creatively employing its CGI).

While most of the storytelling is relatively strong throughout, having seen all eight of the one-hour episodes, I found it ends up a little rushed and erratic in the final two, particularly the finale. That said, it’s not easy to build a big web of genre mythology without a clear case of intellectual property rules, but it looks like Beacham and Echevarria are on the same page regarding the larger story (meaning it moves beyond the mysterious serial killer plot to reveal something a lot more intriguing). Amazon has already ordered another season, and there’s certainly enough world-building and enough creativity to merit a longer look for those who give it a chance.

The fine supporting cast includes Jared Harris (Chernobyl) and Indira Varma (Game of Thrones) as a powerful politician and his scheming wife; David Gyasi (Interstellar, Cloud Atlas) as a rich outcast; Simon McBurney (The Loudest Voice) as a theater actor and key piece to a larger murder mystery; and Karla Crome (The Victim, Misfits) as a fae prostitute and best friend to Vignette. All give strong performances, as do Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant as brother-and-sister aristocrats with sinking fortunes.

Ultimately, Bloom and Delevingne must carry the bulk of the first season, and they end up being the primary reasons to keep going when things flag. Part of their success is being believable and playing well off all the characters they encounter, lending some ballast to a spinning story.

Cast: Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, Jared Harris, Indira Varma, David Gyasi, Simon McBurney, Karla Crome, Andrew Gower, Tamzin Merchant, Caroline Ford, Arty Froushan Created and written by: Travis Beacham, Rene Echevarria
Directed by: Thor Freudenthal, Jon Amiel

Freudenthal is repped by attorney Rob Szymanski.