In a world where fantasy adaptations reign ...hell, in the very same world of the studio that’s putting Lord of the Rings to the screen again, Amazon’s Carnival Row is not the fantasy drama you’re looking for.
Original fantasy works on TV are hard to come by these days which is a big reason why Carnival Row’s execution is so disappointing. (Writer/creator Travis Beacham tried to sell his script for over 10 years and Guillermo del Toro was originally meant to produce.) The world is gorgeous, enticing even, something I was curious to indulge in. The land of Tirnanoc, discovered by humans an indeterminant length of time ago, is home to the fae. It, and nearby Ignota (home to the faun and a large number of other fantasy species), have been overwhelmed by the arrival of humans to their shores and the ensuing war.
But the story is chiefly concerned with the goings-on in the Burgue, the pseudo-British/Victorian home to humans and the mythological creatures-turned-immigrants. It’s where police officer Rycroft Philostrate (Orlando Bloom in a return to fantasy) resides and where his lover Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), who thought him long dead, washes ashore after a recent skirmish with the Pact (one of the two groups fighting the war).
Vignette was a for-hire fighter in Tirnanoc helping others escape the land as best she could until her luck ran out and she needed to make the same journey so many others had before her. Unfortunately, as this happens almost immediately in the first episode, what viewers are treated to is a clunky slave trade allegory featuring a very white face.
Establishing this world is where Carnival Row tends to fall apart. While the leads of the series are white, there is some more diversity in the supporting cast in all levels of Burgue society. But navigating issues of race where fantasy creatures are involved is a complicated task and who hates who and why in Carnival Row is not entirely clear. Almost no humans are tolerant of the immigrants (the fae and others are referred to by slurs almost constantly) — except when they’re visiting a brothel — and while most in the Burgue have British accents, Vignette’s is Irish, wrapping a whole other level of historical reference into an already muddled universe.
Considering all the racial dynamics at play, Carnival Row actually digs deeper on class warfare. Particularly when it comes to newly arrived Burgue resident Argeus Astrayon (Interstellar’s David Gyasi) and flailing elites Imogen Spurnose (Tamzin Merchant) and her brother Ezra (Andrew Gower). You see, Argeus is a faun and his appearance in a wealthy neighbourhood isn’t just shocking, it raises a lot of questions. But there’s also Chancellor Absalom Breakspear (Jared Harris), current leader of Parliament, his wife Piety (Indira Virma), and their son Jonah (Arty Froushan), who is a frequent customer of the fae at the local brothel.
Oh, did I mention the fae Tourmaline (Karla Crome) and Vignette were previously in a romantic relationship and the latter gets herself tied up in an illicit group called the Black Ravens? And the whole serial killer subplot which is so uninteresting I forgot about it until now. And werewolf curses. There’s a lot happening on Carnival Row.
Bloom and Delevingne both put in fair performances, they just don’t have enough meat to work with. It took until the third episode for Carnival Row to get me vaguely interested in its two leads, and that’s because it finally shifted to a flashback of their time meeting on Tirnanoc.
Up until then, we hadn’t really seen anything of the romance we’re meant to care so much about and even in the flashback their time together feels all too brief. However, their one-on-one scenes (specifically their sex scenes) are beautifully shot, giving the production a chance to show off a little — the series was filmed in the Czech Republic — and reveal a few secrets.
But the unexplored lands and lives of the mythological entities are far more interesting than anything happening in the Burgue. The faerie culture is absolutely gorgeous and begs more exploration — they’ve got witches, too! The Ripper Street meets Penny Dreadful vibe of the city is incredibly hollow in comparison. But that’s what Carnival Row is, a series about the working and ruling class in a time when things were worse than they are now. We’ve seen it many times over and all the magic in the world sadly won’t let it shine.
Carnival Row debuts on Amazon Prime on August 30 and has already been renewed for a second season.