Amazon's Carnival Row is a big-budget nerd fantasy
If a group of hardcore genre fans got together and wrote a TV show, and then somebody’s rich Uncle Jeff (Bezos) Venmo’d them several million dollars to produce it, the result might be something like Carnival Row. Amazon’s fantasy-thriller mash-up — starring Orlando Bloom and Cara Delevingne as unlikely, Victorian-era lovers — is a knotty, nerdy, and endearingly sincere parable about immigration and xenophobia, with plenty of interspecies sex to satisfy viewers.
As we learn from the text-on-screen preamble, the “fae” (a.k.a. fairy people) spent years defending their homeland from “the many empires of man,” who sought to control it. Now with the war over, fae refugees — fleeing the brutal persecution of a shadowy group called the Pact — are pouring into the Burgue, a sooty, crowded city that looks a lot like Victorian London, but with more goat-people. An increasingly vocal political movement decries the influx of refugees to the city, and tensions are raised further by a series of attacks on “critch” (a derogatory term for all non-human folk). It’s up to Inspector Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate (Bloom) to find the hammer-wielding creep before he strikes again.
This is well-trodden genre territory, presenting fantastical creatures as persecuted outcasts (see: all things X-Men, for example), and Carnival Row — created by René Echevarria (The 4400) and Travis Beacham (Pacific Rim) — generally sticks to the usual plot devices. Philo is a brooding hero with a Big Secret, one that involves his former fae lover Vignette (Delevingne). She, meanwhile, is shocked and more than a little irked to discover that Philo didn’t die in the war.
Amidst the pastiche and the sometimes-banal writing (“You can’t save them all!” “Damn it, I can save one!”) are some playful touches and charming stories. My favorite is the snooty, insolvent Imogen Spurnrose (Tazmin Merchant), who reluctantly falls for the wealthy “puck” (a goat-man hybrid) next door; it’s like Pride and Prejudice and Satyrs. And Game of Thrones’ Indira Varma has a grand old time as Piety Breakspear (gah, these character names are sublime!), the conniving wife to a critch-friendly politician (Jared Harris).
At times, the mythology can feel needlessly complex, but there is something truly endearing about Carnival’s earnest, irony-free storytelling. Oddly, this splashy streamer production built around a movie star and a former model feels like an underdog — a Cones of Dunshire-style labor of love on a Jack Ryan budget. B-
Carnival Row premieres August 30 on Amazon.