Carnival Row debuts it’s eight-episode first season on Amazon Prime on August 30, 2019.
As the series isn’t out yet we’re keeping those one spoiler-lite!
Carnival Row, a series set in a Victorian fantasy world filled with mythological immigrant creatures whose exotic homelands were invaded by the empires of man. This growing population struggles to coexist with humans — forbidden to live, love, or fly with freedom. But even in darkness, hope lives, as a human detective, Rycroft Philostrate, and a refugee faerie named Vignette Stonemoss rekindle a dangerous affair despite an increasingly intolerant society. Vignette harbours a secret that endangers Philo’s world during his most important case yet: a string of gruesome murders threatening the uneasy peace of the Row.
Before we kick this one off: the press have only received screeners for episodes 1-4 out of the 8 episode season so our review is based on what we have been shown.
Carnival Row is a series we’ve all been quietly excited for here in our office. The trailers have all seemed engaging and the leads both seem well suited to their roles. Plus the idea of a Victorian murder-mystery series involving mythical creatures seemed just plain cool.
Fast forward to finishing episode four and colour me surprised that Carnival Row has so much more going for it than the simple premise gives away.
In fact this series is much more of an ensemble piece and features a complex structure of plots which will no doubt all come together at some point in the future. I hate to mention it but it feels more akin to early seasons of Game of Thrones, so much as to say that plenty of characters have not crossed paths and therefore their stories are – currently – all very separate.
But if you are looking for fast paced action this is perhaps not the show for you. Instead Carnival Row is a slow burner, tantalising the audience with small details, such as the relationship between Philo (Orlando Bloom) and Vignette (Cara Delevingne), which are being fleshed out as the narrative rolls on.
The opening episode – “Some Dark God Wakes” – sets the scene of the Victorian world of The Burgue and introduces us to a cast of characters in both the high society and on Carnvial Row itself. It’s a hugely diverse cast including plenty of familiar faces.
Admittedly it took a little while to warm to Orlando Bloom’s accent as Rycroft Philostrate. It lands somewhere between his Will Turner voice in Pirates of the Caribbean and an impression of Vinnie Jones. But its entirely forgivable once we start to unravel the backstory of his character and her becomes more engaging.
Philo remains a mystery in the first two episodes beyond some exposition as to his relationship with Vignette. But the series employs some clever misdirection until it’s third and fourth episodes when all starts to become clear.
There’s a good balance between Bloom and Delevingne in these episodes. Whilst she anchors the pilot the second episode shifts balance towards Philo. The third and fourth episodes felt much more 50/50 between the pair.
Vignette is designed to be a much more accessible and amiable character. From the outset we find her in tragic circumstances and the narrative around her perfectly places her as a strong but emotionally weary character.
Having only seen Delevingne in Suicide Squad and Valerian I wasn’t sure what to make of her casting but this is easily her finest acting work to date. Much like with Bloom it takes a minute to adjust to her Irish accent but once you can see past it Vignette is one of the most complex characters in the show.
She has the most supporting cast around her and that offers plenty of opportunity to show the character in a different light. As the show goes on I hope we get to explore more of her backstory and her life amongst the Fae before The Pact stole their territory and killed many of their kind. Episode three shows us much of the period of time during the war but there’s plenty of story to tell in happier times.
Other standouts in the cast include Jared Harris as Absalom Breakspear, Chancellor of The Burgue who is embroiled in a controversy surrounding his son (Arty Froushan). Watch out for an excellent performance from Indria Varma as his wife, Piety Breakspear also.
Tamzin Merchant and Andrew Gower please down-on-their-luck brother and sister Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose. Left to run their family home after the death of their father they’re struggling with frittering away their fortune.
In the first episode it seems these two are tangentially connected to the story as it was Ezra who owned the boat which sank and brought Vignette to The Burgue. Consequently she ends up acting as a servant to Imogen. But there’s far more at play with these two.
In the following episodes what plays out is an unexpected story involving the bigotry and racism which divides the mythical creatures of Carnival Row and its human populous.
I’m particularly impressed with how this story plays out in the first four episodes. Merchant has done an excellent job of creating a 7th century mean girl who is equal parts loathsome and addicting. I love all her scenes but her character is truly deplorable.
It remains to be seen whether she can be redeemed but I expect both of these characters to become integral to the central plot down the line.
There is a bigger mystery bubbling under the surface of Carnival Row. It plays in to the conclusion of episode one but takes a bit of a backseat after this until the fourth episode. However once it gets going it does seem to be picking up steam, I can only presume Amazon provided us with only four episodes to save major spoilers from the rest of the season.
What struck me most about Carnival Row was its excellent production. Shot in Prague the city looks beautiful on film and with the amounts of visual effects used it’s suitably transformed to become The Burgue.
Creature effects are a mix of practical and CGI but all are excellent. The Fae wings are beyond impressive even in the most intimate of moments – maybe don’t watch this show on a packed London trail as I did – and Puck’s have excellently designed practical horns.
For a show with a premise such as this to be taken seriously it needed to be well produced so I was over the to moon to see it done so well. Characters fly around the scenery without looking too CGI or betraying wirework. Overhead rail cars and entirely CGI buildings integrate well to the landscape and really give the show a unique aesthetic.
Composer Nathan Barr also offers a unique music interpretation of the world. His score is striking from the opening prologue right through the end of episode four. In the short space of time I’ve spent in this world he has developed several recurring themes for major characters as well as elevating the Victorian landscape with his music.
At times it feels a little Game of Thrones (there’s that name again) but I can also hear echoes of BBC’s Sherlock in there. All-in-all it’s a brilliant soundscape for this fairytale land.
Bubbling beneath the fantasy exterior is a complex series of plots which all congregate into a compelling, albeit slow-burning, narrative. Carnival Row features some first-rate production alongside well written and equally complex characters.
Based on these first four episodes we’re all-in for the rest of the season.
Carnival Row stars Cara Delevingne and Orlando Bloom. Co-starring are David Gyasi, Tamzin Merchant, Andrew Gower, Karla Crome, Artemas Froushan, Carolien Ford, Indira Varma, Jared Harris and SImon McBurnery.