Alienist vs. predator: ‘The Alienist’

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Fanning, Brühl, Evans (L-R)

The Alienist is the latest period crime drama to find its way to Netflix. I tuned in over the weekend to see what all the fuss was about and I wasn’t disappointed.

Think Ripper Street but set in New York and everyone sounds like that annoying American.

Well everyone except award-winning German actor Daniel Brühl (Good Bye, Lenin!, Inglorious Basterds, Captain America: Civil War) who plays the brooding Dr Laszlo Kreizler, the eponymous ‘alienist’.

As the opening sequence explains: “In the 19th century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. Experts who studied them were therefore known as alienists.”

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The Isaacson twins

Kreizler puts together an ad hoc team of misfit do-gooders to investigate a serial killer who is targeting boy prostitutes in the dark and dreary underbelly of late 19thcentury New York City.

Welsh Orlando Bloom/Antonio Banderas-lookalike Luke Evans (The Hobbit, The Girl on the Train, Beauty and the Beast) plays society page illustrator John Moore who has been whisked away by his old Harvard chum Kreizler into a world of darkness and depravity.

They are joined by the ‘headstrong’ (Victorian for: ‘a woman who doesn’t know her place’) Sara Howard – played by an all-grown-up Dakota Fanning (The War of the Worlds, The Twilight Saga) – as the capable and determined secretary to police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt.

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Miss Howard

The first episode dragged me in like a mastodon stuck in a tar pit. No matter how much I struggled not to get drawn in by yet another period crime drama, the abyssal chiaroscuro camera effects and thrilling storyline pulled me in deeper.

In an era paradoxically defined by its ingrained intolerance as much as its pioneering spirit of discovery, the gang have been secretly called upon by Roosevelt to investigate the murders, revealing sickening cruelty and deep-rooted corruption along the way.

If you thought the Dickensian slums of Ripper Street were bad, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Much like that time Jeremy Kyle did a US special, everything is so much worse in America if you’re poor.

The beauty of a period drama is that it takes issues that we think are very much 21st century problems (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, racism) and dresses them in morning suits and penny collars so we can stand back and say: “I’m glad I didn’t live back then.”

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It’s a man’s world

Take the character of Howard. She is very much a woman in a man’s world and the show does not shy away from this, no doubt drawing on the shame surrounding the #MeToo movement. But Fanning’s character can certainly hold her own and it is empowering to see.

Although the cast remains very much male-heavy, it unflinchingly explores not only the roles of women in this era, but also those of other, non-cis identities. The sympathetic portrayal of the boy prostitutes is not over-played for the ‘shock factor’ but done delicately and precisely – much like Kreizler’s investigation.

Many of the child victims would today be classed as transgender and they are treated as little more than animals by their fellow slum-dwellers – and even by some of the police – who ‘chose’ their lifestyle and therefore the manner of their demise. An attitude expected from the 1890s, but not a world away from the treatment of trans and LGBT+ people in 2018 (read the news/listen to politicians). Thankfully Dr Kreizler and the gang are a little more enlightened.

Turn ons

  • The seemingly extensive and meticulous sets (shot in Budapest apparently)
  • Kreizler’s knowing smirks
  • The galgenhumor of the Isaacson twins
  • The oddly satisfying scene with the corpse Bunsen burners

Turn offs

  • The odious Captain Connor
  • The first episode tries to do too much. The exposition and character introductions are sometimes hard to follow
  • Someone turn on a gas lamp! It’s not just the storyline that’s dark
  • “Wait, who’s that guy?” – there’ll be a lot of that if you don’t pay attention

All ten episodes of The Alienist are available now on Netflix.

One comment

  1. […] premise and imagery of the original film and ramped it up to the extreme. Take Ted Levine’s (The Alienist, Silence of the Lambs, Monk) character, the ruthless mercenary Ken Wheatley who is basically just a […]

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