Mystery-thriller “Dark” handed Netflix one of its first big international hits, while announcing German creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese as potential masters of the atmospheric puzzle-show.
The pair’s latest, “1899,” presents an even more elaborate conundrum, expanding outwards from its escape-room opening: a blanched heroine (Emily Beecham) awaking in a cabin of the Kerberos, a steamer carrying immigrants to the New World. Armchair detectives will already be noting the woman’s bruised wrists, the postcard on her dresser, the newspaper reporting a vanished ship with an equally suggestive name. Critics were left scrambling for the middling-to-long list of spoilers Netflix’s PR team were keen for us to avoid.
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If “Dark” was “Twin Peaks” without the goofiness, then “1899” risks synopsis – and simplification – as “Lost” on the high seas. In fact, this is several shows at once, and part of the puzzle lies in figuring out which one it wants to be. The basic set-up is period drama refurbished with genre thrills and spills: that ghost ship soon reappears off the Kerberos’s starboard bow. There’s a little soap in the water, not least flickers of attraction between Beecham’s Dr. Maura Franklin and the ship’s widowed captain Eyk (Andreas Pietschmann). And we drift towards “Titanic” territory, with a divide opening up between the initially leisured occupants of the ship’s upper decks and the begrimed and restless proles hiding out in the hull.
Dr. Maura becomes the go-between, rational and sympathetic where the motives of her fellow travellers – who include unhappy French honeymooners (Mathilde Ollivier and Jonas Bloquet), shady Spanish brothers (Miguel Bernardeau and José Pimentão), an unsmiling geisha (Isabella Wei) and a Hobbit-like stowaway (Aneurin Barnard) – are open to question. (The Danish homesteaders, by contrast, remain reliably dull.) But idiosyncrasies – odd little bugs, of one sort or another – keep alerting us to the fact nothing is as it seems. Passengers sip tea to the exact same tempo. Ben Frost’s ambient score resembles a radio being retuned in an adjacent room. Labored parallels are drawn between the ocean and the human brain.
One doesn’t invoke “Lost” lightly: as with that divisive thought experiment, “1899’s” ultimate success will depend on how long and far viewers bombarded with more immediate forms of gratification are prepared to sail alongside it. Having now watched all eight episodes, I’ll give the show this: it has a nifty hook, then tirelessly stokes the flames of fan theory. What’s the significance of the ship’s triangular motif? Why are all the compasses set to spinning? Do the cabin numbers have any greater mathematical meaning? The supernatural fog that drifts in to envelop both ships over the course of the third episode might just be steam diverted from an overworked writers’ room.
Of course, if you’re resistant to those shows whose very business is to leave you with more questions than answers, then you’d do well to steer clear. Yet production expertise bolsters the narrative scheming: it’s a well-crafted stocking filler, which may sway reluctant puzzlers. Udo Kramer’s penumbral production design enables bo Odar’s camera to poke around a maze of interlocking, sometimes Kubrickian corridors, cabins and trap doors, pausing occasionally to peruse a choice carpeting detail or a most incongruous wall of television monitors. The Kerberos is a site of interest long before its roster of passengers is thinned out and full-blown mutiny erupts.
The trouble is that this framework proves more compelling than the people within it. Reaching some distance beyond “Dark’s” provincial milieu, “1899” spotlights a fully international, multilingual ensemble. Yet you’re reminded that no one became a major star off the back of “Lost,” in large part because the characters are permitted no greater agency than the ball bearings in a pachinko parlour. Similarly, rattling round inside a mechanical construction, characters in “1899” guard their secrets until it’s good for the game to give them up. Actors spend most of their scenes echoing exactly the lines coming from the casual viewer’s couch: “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on here?,” “None of this makes any sense!,” “Why is this happening again?”
And despite an often witty interpolation of 20th century pop (“The Killing Moon,” “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “White Rabbit”), the prevailing humorlessness becomes wearisome after a while: as with the recently canceled “Westworld,” the game leaves you not with a smile, but a furrowed brow. The final episodes are a representative mixed bag: clever and visually striking in their contrast of interior and exterior space, big on Plato, even loopier still. It isn’t just space-time bending – razzing that rather precise “1899” title – but the show itself, fraying amid the strain of trying to rewire itself. There’s a certain fascination in seeing a show roil beneath the weight of its own intelligent design; by then, however, I fear all but the ultra-obsessive few will have jumped ship.
“1899” is now streaming on Netflix. All eight episodes screened for review.
Executive producers: Philipp Klausing, Baran bo Odar, Jantje Friese.
Producer: Pat Tookey-Dickson. Line producer: Benedikt Bothe.
Cast: Emily Beecham, Aneurin Barnard, Andreas Pietschmann, Miguel Bernardeau, José Pimentão, Gabby Wong, Isabella Wei, Yann Gael, Mathilde Olliver, Jonas Bloquet, Rosalie Craig, Anton Lesser.
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