What I did when I didn’t go out this weekend.
It was either Alan Moore or Stewart Lee, when describing the development of storytelling from DC in the ‘40s to Marvel in the ‘60s, who said the shift from one to two-dimensional central characters chiefly involved giving them attributes such as ‘a bad leg’. Well, gammy appendages abound in the first series of The Alienist (on your netflix and probably elsewhere), which I watched this weekend with my partner and our poorly puss Ghostface. The apparently ageless Daniel Brühl (no amount of hirsute frowning can disguise them cherubic chops) plays the titular psychologist, who assembles a crack team of intellectual outcasts -and, erm, actual history’s Theodore Roosevelt- to track down a Ripper style ‘multi-murderer’, praying on the cross-dressing ‘boy whores’ of 1890s New York.
Brühl’s Dr. Kreizler is delivered in intense and brooding fashion, as you would expect from a disabled and mistrusted criminal psychiatrist, though once the aforementioned gammy arm becomes a point of conversation, his swinging left limb brings to mind The Actor Kevin Eldon’s turn as Rod Hull. The cast perform well (I wonder if Michael Ironside bulked up for the role of also actual history’s J.P. Morgan. That motherfucker looks like he was wheeled into every scene by a runner with a sack barrow), though all are hindered by the same characterisation issues and can ultimately be reduced to the single words or phrases that define their struggle and opposition to the status quo. Lush. Jews. Driven woman. There are vague references to the real meat of unsubtle character development, which are dropped into conversation at convenient moments of high drama (see Brühl and Dakota Fanning’s game of traumatic childhood top trumps) or mentioned in passing and never elaborated on. One character is said to have set her dad on fire. SET HER DAD ON FIRE! KILLED HIM DEAD WITH FIRE! This is never explained or returned to.
The lighting and cinematography go to great lengths to turn the gas-lamp gothic city into a character of its own. However, the issues that make up the place and time- crushing poverty and grotesque wealth, racism, police corruption, radical politics, child prostitution are all treated like the often impressive sets. They look the part, but there is little behind them. Analysis of the differences and similarities in societies, especially one so closely linked to our own, is generally the most interesting aspect of any period drama. However, here it becomes like the city’s gammy leg (or arm, or CGI pulsating cheek). Only there to give colour and the illusion of something more.