1899 Review

1899
At the end of the 19th century, an immigrant ship is bound for New York. Passengers are divided by class, wealth and nationality, but they’re all united against the troubled Captain Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann) when he decides to turn the vessel around to investigate spooky events on a sister liner.

by Boyd Hilton |

Streaming on: Netflix

Episodes viewed: 3 of 8

German TV-writing duo Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar are used to playing their narrative cards close to their chests. Their previous Netflix project, Dark, was wilfully bizarre and confusing across three out-there series, but it was also beautifully put together and startlingly original. Now they’ve made an even more puzzling period drama with supernatural horror inflections, set aboard a gigantic 19th century cruise ship heading from Europe to New York.

The 1400 people on board range from the decadent rich having illicit liaisons to economic migrants desperately seeking a better life, with the contrast in living quarters reminiscent of train-based film (and subsequent TV series) Snowpiercer. Most of the passengers have something in common: they seem to have dark secrets of one kind or another and are deeply reluctant to share their real reasons for wanting a place on this ship.

Emily Beecham’s quizzical doctor is an effective and dignified guide through the madness.

Quite how and why another such liner owned by the same company went missing, only to be discovered in an almost deserted state, why little mechanical beetles are pootling around the cabins, why mini black pyramids keep popping up and why Aneurin Barnard has such a suspicious look on his face, make for an enthralling binge watch, even if you have little idea what’s going on most of the time.

Among the truly international cast of characters — who all get to speak in their mother tongue — Emily Beecham’s quizzical doctor is an effective and dignified guide through the madness, while Barnard, as a mysterious passenger who seems to know what the hell is going on but won’t tell anyone else, adds to the creepiness of the whole enterprise. Amid all the curious goings-on and mysteries wrapped inside riddles, there are intriguing takes on sexual transgression, prejudice and class conflict which give the story extra weight. It all adds up to a beguiling, if perilous, journey.

An intriguing, densely layered puzzle-box mystery that defies easy categorisation but somehow works.
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