With so much landing almost daily on streaming services, separating the good from the bad can be exhausting. For those searching for chilling escapism, Netflix’s latest mind-bending period drama 1899 could actually be that worthwhile investment. This is the latest mini-series creation from the mind of German director Baran bo Odar along with his artistic and romantic partner, screenwriter Jantje Friese. The pair’s last endeavor, the science fiction thriller Dark gained glorious acclaim. Due to that success, and again through Netflix, the anticipation and promise for 1899 became an active talking point in certain circles. It is very stylish, both in the story arc of the characters and the general aesthetic which is painstakingly executed.
However, it is not all greatness for this miniseries. Whereas Dark, the Twin Peaks styled time-travel mystery, managed to keep the audience riveted through the full three seasons, 1899 is more challenging. Better said: the series makes you work through it instead of drawing you in. A lot of that hinges on the pacing which is slow, the long character development and of course the claustrophobic atmosphere. That movement issue aside, there is a lot that the director has advanced with. For example, as Dark is entirely in bo Odar’s native tongue of German, 1899 is multilingual, and that makes it more broad and engaging – capturing a reality and widening the field of characters. But the meat on the bones of 1899 is that all-important story, and how it unfolds.
The easiest way to describe 1899 in simple terms is Titanic meets Black Mirror. It is extremely gritty from the start, with no color in the gray ocean hue that envelops the cast of characters. From the onset we are introduced to neurologist Maura Henriette (Little Joe’s Emily Beecham), who is traveling aboard the immigrant ship The Kerberos from London to New York. Surrounded by a cast of diverse characters, each are connected by the thread of running to or from something. They are all suitably mysterious, traveling in twos from different parts of the world. This all takes place under the watchful eye of the alcoholic Captain Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann). The voyage is interrupted, much to the anger of the passengers, when a signal is received from a ship called The Prometheus, which went missing, presumed sunk, four months previously. The captain decides to head towards where the message is being transmitted from, and this is where things really start to twist.
From the captain to Henriette, the main characters are all joined by something relating to The Prometheus. When they board they find a ghost ship – well almost, as the passengers and crew all have vanished. Then the mysterious Daniel Solace (Aneurin Barnard) boards The Kerberos, opening up yet another dimension to the narrative. The series is also rife with symbolism throughout, namely beetles which act as signposts and characterize freedom itself. More prominent again is an inverted triangle (although not quite the Bermuda Triangle) with a dividing line that appears throughout, even to eagle-eyed viewers as a pair of earrings. Although trivial, this shape is the foundation for everything that unfolds. This may make it feel a bit like the once-brilliant Lost, though 1899 has more conviction.
The joy of this miniseries is not knowing how it will end or what that ending will be. But the clues are there from the start. With Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ (Alice In Wonderland) dominating the soundtrack, alongside the names of the ships; Kerberos (computer authentication) and Prometheus (Greek mythology demigod) – you slowly realise, certainly by episode three of the eighth, that things are far from what they seem.
My only qualm is that aforementioned slowness of it all, and how it takes so long to settle or indeed become enjoyable. In many ways 1899 suffers the same as that other Netflix hit The Watcher, where it could be condensed and the miniseries runs too long – in other words less can actually offer more. Other than that, this is a mystery thriller that eventually works well if you are willing to stick with it.
1899 is currently streaming on Netflix