'1899' review: Tremendous Netflix thriller will get people talking
Supernatural thriller 1899, which launches on Netflix from 17 November, is the brainchild of Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese – who steered the mind-bending German sci-fi series Dark towards streaming dominance on the platform over three seasons.
The follow-up welcomes audiences onboard the Kerberos, a cruiseliner bound for New York City, filled with supernatural secrets, conflicting relationships and an ancient symbol or two.
From the outset 1899 plays a canny game of show and tell with audiences, as character introductions and interlinking relationships are established. It's an approach which opens up this Chinese puzzle box of a mystery and delivers a truly engrossing piece of entertainment.
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First on the list of intriguing participants is Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), a woman haunted by unsettling flashbacks, who seeks a fresh start overseas. Scarred by the aftermath of mental illness, she is an enigma swathed in affluence and afforded solitude, clinging to words passed down on paper by her brother.
Watch a trailer for 1899
Next up is Virginia (Rosalie Craig) who Maura encounters over dinner, who warns against the impropriety of travelling alone. This brief exchange allows the roving camera an opportunity to introduce other pivotal players in this saga, while an ever present soundtrack adds to the ominous atmosphere.
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Lucien (Jonas Bloquet) and Clemence (Mathilde Olliver) are a recently married French couple who occupy a nearby table, while Ramiro (Jose Pimentao) and Eugene (Joshua Seelenbinder) sit a few feet further away bickering - either brothers, lovers or in business together. Finally, there is Wing Li (Isabella Wei) and her mother Yuk Je (Gabby Wong) within each shot of other diners, who sit in silence eating quietly.
Beyond that there is the captain Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), as well as those below decks in steerage who include Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tonnesen) and his sister Tove (Clara Rosager) — each of whom plays an intrinsic part in the drama which unfolds on board.
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In the early episodes 1899 feels more like Event Horizon than anything else, as it plays with perspective and atmospherics, dwelling on symbolism, cranking up the tension and really grounding these characters in this reality. However, that changes with the arrival of a distress signal from their sister vessel Prometheus, which has been missing for months, forcing them to change course.
It is fair to say that 1899 requires a degree of investment from anyone who decides to dive in. There is a complexity and precision to the storytelling that intentionally makes everything unreliable. Time and place are perpetually in flux, motivations are frequently changing, and relationships are temporary at best.
After the search party returns from Prometheus with a sole survivor, who seems unfazed by his months of isolation, passengers start asking questions. Shortly afterwards Kerberos suffers its first fatality when a young girl initially disappears before turning up dead. What follows is a gradual escalation in terms of tension and storytelling, as each of the principal players starts revealing their true colours.
Plaudits should go to Andreas Pietschmann for his layered turn as captain of the stricken vessel, while Emily Beecham deserves equal amounts of kudos for making Maura every inch the enigma throughout. Below decks, Olek (Maciej Musial) and Jerome (Yann Gael) also prove invaluable when it comes to serving as a dramatic bridge between the two class factions, liaising with the engine room while fashioning more wealthy connections in first class.
However, beyond the battle of wills which dominate much of 1899, there is one element which defies description and focuses solely on one man. It not only makes this Netflix series unique, but asks the audience to disregard anything concerned with story or character and instead think dimensionally.
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There are visual clues everywhere in the production design and set decoration behind this show. In terms of characters, Daniel (Aneurin Barnard) might seem to be the biggest instigator of this dramatic element, but his actions also impact everyone else in one way or another. As the rabbit hole goes deeper and an increasing array of ambiguities distract, 1899 goes from solid entertainment to landmark television.
Creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese have made something here which will get people talking. It takes the idea of a character study and subverts it, tackles elements of the murder mystery and reboots them, before changing tack completely to deliver an astounding trump card. Amongst the mutinous crew, supernatural symbolism and grounded character drama something else is going on.
Beneath this seafaring drama, 1899 operates on a more fundamental level. One that is concerned by memory and how we remember, as well as time and how we travel within it. This show will challenge audiences to re-evaluate our understanding of entertainment, by asking people to question the boundaries of both story and structure.
In terms of tackling the bigger picture, 1899 delivers dramatic ambition by bending genre conventions. Making sure to hang any digressions on a solid ensemble cast, who pepper their layered performances with ample amounts of pathos. Slow burning in every sense and yet staggering all at once – 1899 is tremendous.
1899 is now streaming on Netflix. Take a closer look at the show below.