Not all that glitters is gold. After years of gunning for Netflix’s streaming crown, Amazon Prime now has a wealth of exclusively nurtured shows and a bevy of awards under its belt. With the critical acclaim of shows like Transparent and The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel fresh in the memory, pots of money must have been sunk into Carnival Row: a show that seeds classical faerie creatures as an underclass within a recognisably Victorian-style London-esque city. Is it money well spent?
Visually Carnival Row is certainly as well dressed as its higher class citizens. Central location ‘The Burgue’ is a large heaving city awash with upper classes looking down on the thriving immigrant Fae population. Beneath gloriously decorated townhouses the undercity is packed with working-class humans who aren’t happy to be sharing space with a glut of mythical beings either.
An introduction scroller explains that the resource-rich homelands of the Fae were obliterated by the wars of man. Faced with massacre the Fae fled to The Burgue as refugees but have largely been reduced to employment as servants, cleaners, or sex workers.
The streets teem with fragile winged fairies, curly horned fauns (referred to derogatorily as ‘pucks’), and ancient witches. Although if it weren’t for this element you could switch over to a show like Ripper Street and barely notice the difference in aesthetic. It’s your typical have-and-have-nots situation where the racism and classism are less subtext and more a slab of unsubtle concrete crushing the foot.
Enter emotionally stunted lead detective Rycroft Philostrate, (“Philo”, played by Orlando Bloom) who must investigate a series of gory murders that have eviscerated several Fae across the city with foul frequency.
This is one plotline of many, and one that takes a while to get a foothold. In the meantime, Philo’s former Fae lover and refugee trafficker, Vignette (Cara Delevingne) not only gets herself indebted in service to the upper-class Spumrose siblings but also discovers that her pined after love is not dead, as she was led to believe.
Throw into the mix a political power struggle in parliament that bubbles up in both official and unofficial channels, a terrorist Fae organisation, a large dollop of Game of Thrones style gratuitous sex, and an oppressive police force, and you get a chunky soup that can leave you confused as to which lump to chew over at any given moment.
Carnival Row attempts to do a lot at once and yet lacks the confidence to do things subtly. Each plot feels so on the nose and predictable that instead, you need to turn to the performances which are hit and miss. Bloom’s gruff exterior hiding a pained past comes across as any ‘tortured’ cop lead you care to mention. Delevingne brings excellent fire, anger, and vulnerability to her performance plus you get the always excellent Jared Harris for your money.
There is satisfaction in watching a snooty condescending character slowly learn humility (Tamzin Merchant) when faced with a wealthy faun (David Gyasi) displaying the height of manners. It’s just a shame these plotlines rarely intersect.
It’s clear much work and investment has gone into Carnival Row and the money is right there on the screen. It looks great, it has big names starring, and it mostly works to sell a fantasy concept within easily recognisable tropes so as to not be too off putting.
If the murder mystery had been the earlier focus rather than jumping straight into the Bloom / Delevingne entanglement element, and if it hadn’t tried so hard to be edgy with the tirade of gutter talk and writhing naked bodies, then it could have cut the fat and been leaner and meaner for it. Instead, we have a bloated corpse in the sewer that is worth poking with a stick, but don’t get too close lest it slowly and inexorably oozes on you.
Words by Mike Record