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The Alienist review: Netflix’s unholy, grotesque spin on Sherlock Holmes

The Alienist review: Netflix’s lavish new period crime drama is like an unholy marriage between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Mindhunter, starring an outstanding Dakota Fanning.

tv Updated: Apr 21, 2018 20:06 IST
The Alienist,The Alienist Review,Netflix
If networks are going to overspend, then it is on shows like The Alienist that they should be overspending on.(Netflix)

The Alienist
Cast - Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans, Dakota Fanning
Rating - 4/5

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York ends with one of the most striking final shots in the history of cinema. As the camera pans above the carnage of a bloody battle, it settles on a static panorama - of Scorsese’s home, his New York City. We observe - silently, as we process the human corruption we’ve been forced to contend with in the last the three hours - as the New York skyline transforms before us. From the crusty grime of the 1863 - the year in which the movie takes place - to the arrival of the 1920s, when the buildings aimed for the sky, and touched it. We see a more hopeful image emerge from the violence and darkness - we see the iconic World Trade Centre buildings, the final frame of the film, a decision that couldn’t have been taken lightly in a movie that was released barely 12 months after they came crashing down.

As the screen fades to black, with a typically anthemic U2 song playing us out, it feels like you’ve just returned from a journey into the past. There is no other city in the world that has been portrayed as widely (and as lovingly) as New York. Through movies, and TV, it receives more visitors every year than perhaps any other place in the world - even if those visitors aren’t there physically.

The Alienist, the new show acquired by Netflix, is a worthy addition to these NYC stories. And it takes place only a few years after the moral decrepitude depicted in Gangs of New York. It paints a unique tapestry of this city - a city that is just as comfortable hosting the violence of Scorsese as it is the whimsy of Woody Allen, the neuroses of Jerry Seinfeld and the rage of Spike Lee. Recently, we’ve seen three HBO shows - Girls, The Deuce and High Maintenance - continue this cinematic relationship with renewed passion.

The underlying darkness in The Alienist should have been better explored. (Netflix)

The city - its tenements and avenues - plays an important role in The Alienist, a psychological thriller about a serial killer and the ad hoc group of investigators hot on his trail. After the gory murder of a boy prostitute, newly appointed police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt - the very same - calls upon the services of Dr Laszlo Kreizler, a criminal psychologist, to investigate the crime. Dr Kreizler, played by Daniel Bruhl, puts together an unlikely team - a New York Times cartoonist (played by Luke Evans), two young Jewish detectives who also happen to be twins and an upstart secretary (Dakota Fanning).

None of these characters belong in the same room together for a quiet dinner, let alone for the purposes of catching a serial killer before he takes another life - and the dynamic between these outsiders, these young men (and woman) driven by wildly different motivations, is uncommonly well written.

Dakota Fanning is outstanding in her role. (Netflix)

But how couldn’t it be? The Alienist boasts a rather unbelievable roster of writers - between them, they have four Academy Award nominations, a spot on the Pulitzer Prize shortlist and an Emmy. The least acclaimed member of the writers room, for perspective, is Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed the first season of True Detective - one of the seminal shows we have in the last 10 years.

While Fukunaga hasn’t helmed any of the 10 episodes of The Alienist, it is beyond doubt one of the most lavish TV productions in recent memory - filmed on a sprawling backlot in Budapest, where they built entire streets, dressed immaculate to recreate the New York City of 1896.

It really does transport you to another time, like Gangs of New York did, as we follow our team of heroes as they chase clues down dark alleys, investigate disease-ridden brothels, and watch opera as they try to stop a killer, who, like the murderer in Batman: The Long Halloween, strikes on religious holidays.

Dr Kreizler is a fascinating central character, a high functioning sociopath not unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. His troubled past and his clinical precision add a layer of mystery that, somewhat irritatingly, remains murky till the very end. What begins as a purely scientific experiment on his part - he wants to empathise with the behaviour of the most depraved members of our society - turns into a personal quest, and transforms him into an almost Oskar Schindler-esque figure.

Daniel Bruhl is a difficult nut to crack. (Netflix)

However, of the central trio, Dakota Fanning is the true standout - she is the de facto outsider in a group of outsiders, because of the simple inconvenience that she was born a girl - and chasing criminals, barging into seedy brothels and questioning male authority is unbecoming of a lady, especially one who belongs to a respectable family.

It all makes for engaging drama, and works as a temporary distraction (and respite) from the horror of the crimes they are investigating.

Luke Evans plays a New York Times cartoonist. (Netflix)

But The Alienist’s insistence of favouring pulpy genre thrills over exploring this underlying darkness, this brutality against children, is something that I had great difficulty in reconciling with - especially now, especially with what is happening in our country.

But, to its credit, it does try. There are no easy explanations for these atrocities, a sad truth that Dr Kreizler must accept, but in this acceptance lies a solution. There will be more murderers, and those murderers will need more good men to stop them. And although The Alienist is billed as a limited series, if I didn’t know better, I’d almost believe that. Caleb Carr wrote several books about these characters after all.

Watch the Alienist trailer here

Follow @htshowbiz for more
The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Apr 19, 2018 09:47 IST