Carnival Row review: Amazon’s big-budget Game of Thrones hopeful wastes fantastic Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne
Cast - Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne, David Gyasi, Indira Verma, Jared Harris
Rating - 2/5
Part police procedural, part star-crossed romance, and part socio-political parable, Amazon Prime Video’s big-budget new drama, Carnival Row, suffers from an identity crisis. After a breezy couple of episodes spent setting up its richly detailed fantasy world, the show gets diverted by distractions of its own making.
Had it focused on any one of its multiple overarching themes - personally, I could’ve lived without the love story - Carnival Row would have been a far more enjoyable experience. Instead, as it stands, it’s a suitably ambitious, admirably well-intentioned, but miserably muddled programme.
Watch the Carnival Row trailer here
Its premise gives off a strong whiff of the Netflix film Bright, which most people seem to scrunch their noses at, but whose low-brow ludicrousness I inhaled deeply back in 2016. Like that film, Carnival Row plonks a variety of fantastical creatures - you have fairies, fauns and the like, all second-class citizens - in a world partially rooted in reality; where humans sit atop the class pyramid. But unlike Bright, which used its modern Los Angeles setting to talk about class and race, Carnival Row takes place in a steampunk Victorian England. Besides the obvious visual attraction, I struggle to find a reason why this absolutely had to be a period piece.
The story it tells is quite timeless. Set in a period of great political upheaval, in a city coming apart at the seams, Carnival Row offers a bold, but beleaguered look at timely themes such as the refugee crisis, racism, and the rise of the far-right. Had it not been populated by winged fairies and horned fauns, certain scenes could very well function as documentaries about the real world.
“Our streets are safe no more,” a conservative parliamentarian declares in one scene. Peppering his rhetoric with hate speech, he warns his colleagues of the outsiders that have arrived from faraway lands, fleeing conflict and certain death. “They bring idleness; they worship strange gods,” the politician continues, amid much cheering.
His adversary, a man who has allowed the poor immigrants to enter the human-dominant city called The Burgue, is the Chancellor. Had Carnival Row been more blunt, it would have made the character a middle-aged German woman, but to the show’s credit, Chancellor Absalom Breakspear is played by the great Jared Harris instead.
Harris’ involvement is one of the many indications that Carnival Row, at least when it was purchased from creator Travis Beacham (who wrote it on spec many years ago), was expected to do for Amazon what Game of Thrones did for HBO. At least until the streaming service launches its ambitious Lord of the Rings series next year. In fact, rival Netflix will release its own GoT hopeful, The Dark Crystal, on the same day as Carnival Row. I must admit, though, that the streaming wars, in all their backroom bloodthirstiness and corporate chicanery, are far more interesting than anything you’ll see in the show, which - don’t get me wrong - doesn’t skimp on the gratuitous violence and weird sex.
A significant part of it is set in a brothel, after all. It is just one of the many subplots that exists only to bring the narrative to a crushing halt. So while Orlando Bloom’s rugged policeman conducts his clandestine investigation into the serial murders of refugees, he also finds time to rekindle a dormant romance with a fairy, played by Cara Delevingne. Both actors are surprisingly solid, and Delevingne’s subtle Northern Irish accent adds another layer to the show’s subtext.
Her arrival at The Burgue, after having been unceremoniously stood up years earlier by Bloom’s character - he was a solider in a cross-species war back then - draws typically ham-fisted parallels to the Syrian refugee crisis, which saw hundreds upon hundreds of would-be migrants perish at sea while making their great escape. It is an interesting thread that would have worked better had the show been more focussed, because crucially, none of the various subplots in Carnival Row has any significant implications on the others, and even if they do, they take too long to arrive at the point.
Of course, dense plots aren’t intrinsically unappealing. Handled well, a textured, layered television show can mimic the feeling of reading a good book. And it might not be an apples-to-apples comparison, but a lot of the stylistic ticks in Carnival Row are reminiscent of comic book storytelling.
I wonder how wise it was for Amazon to invest so heavily in a show that is very clearly at risk of being cannibalised by its own parent. If The Boys doesn’t chew it up, that $250 million Lord of the Rings surely will.
This review is based on the first five episodes of the eight-episode series.