Episodes 1-4 reviewed
Following their latest hits with Good Omens and The Boys, Amazon Prime Video is hoping to replicate their successes and growing viewership with original fantasy series Carnival Row, a Victorian gothic murder mystery which stars Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne. Think Sherlock Holmes meets Penny Dreadful and you’ll get the gist. The show is based on Travis Beacham’s original script ‘A Murder on Carnival Row’ in which Guillermo Del Toro was originally attached to direct prior to scheduling conflicts. It’s definitely an intriguing and lavish series which fully immerses you in a dark and magical World thanks to high production values and a strong ensemble cast. But due to the distinct combination of genres and adult content, the show is almost a niche of its own, which could garner a dedicated fanbase but potentially alienate others who were hoping for a series to fill the void left by Game of Thrones.
Created by Travis Beacham and Rene Echevarria, Carnival Row is set in an alternative Victorian world in which humans and mythological creatures, primarily fairies, fawns and cobalts (known as ‘the fae’), struggle to coexist following a lengthy and brutal war over their homeland of Tirnanoc. The majority of these minorities have been displaced from their homes due to the conflict, and have to get by in The Burge as servants, criminals or prostitutes in the slum known as Carnival Row. There’s an ongoing conflict between Policiticians over the growing influx of the migrants, as well as an increased tension between residents and the police following a spate of attacks and gruesome murders on faes. Bloom’s sympathetic Detective ‘Philo’ takes it upon himself to try and solve the mystery and hunt down the serial killer, but soon runs into trouble along the way with a fae from his past, Delevingne’s Vignette Stonemoss.
There’s a lot going on in Carnival Row. The expansive universe is wonderfully brought to life with many mythical creatures and characters, but you’ll need to pay full attention in the opening episode otherwise the different names, countries and racial slurs against the Fae will quickly become confusing. The show attempts to juggle multiple narratives whilst developing relationships between characters with varying degrees of success, dividing time to some threads which are simply just not as interesting as others. Take the confusing political drama between the Breakspear family, headed up by Chernobyl’s Jared Harris and Game of Thrones’ Indira Varma, for example. Another interesting side plot involving socialite Imogen Spurnrose (Tamzin Merchant) and fawn Mr. Agreus (David Gyasi) wonderfully encapsulates the show’s examination of discrimination, racism and class, but take away Agreus’ horns and it feels like it could be lifted straight from a Jane Austen novel.
The heart of the show however is the tender yet forbidden love story between Philo and fairy Vignette, which is wonderfully explored in the standout third episode in the mountains of Tirnanoc. Questionable accents aside, Bloom perfectly portrays the compassionate yet conflicted detective who genuinely wants to protect the fae folk by tracking down the Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer. Delevingne shines as the strong willed survivor who will do anything to fight for her kind, but when sharing the screen with Bloom’s Philo, there’s a definite heartbreaking wistfulness to the fairy. As Philo navigates the dark underbelly of the Row in search of the killer, plenty of intriguing twists and turns are uncovered in the slow burn mystery that will keep viewers engaged throughout the political side plots.
But where Carnival Row really shines is the phenomenal production values that truly bring this fantastical and ambitious world to life. The costumes, make up and prosthetics fully immerse you in the fantasy and Victorian setting, wonderfully encapsulating the many different creatures and celtic mythology. Filmed in the Czech Republic, the intricate and beautiful architecture are a wonderful backdrop to the grimy aesthetics of the Row, with equally impressive set designs. However if you’re looking for lots of action and big battles, I’m afraid you may be a little disappointed.
Overall, Carnival Row is an intriguing original fantasy which successfully brings to life mythical creatures in a stylishly gothic Victorian murder mystery, featuring an impressive cast. The rich and magical world is unlike anything on our screens at the moment, and although the pacing is somewhat on the slow side favouring a slow burn approach, I believe this series is definitely worthy of your time, particularly if you’re a fan of Taboo and Penny Dreadful.
Carnival Row launches on Prime Video on 30th August