In a dark and brooding kind of month, what better than a dark and brooding kind of drama? Enter The Alienist, an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s best-selling novel set in 1896 New York City. Directed by Jakob Verbruggen (Black Mirror) and produced by Cary Fukanaga (True Detective, 2011’s Jane Eyre), the drama has the weight of top television creators behind it.
Episode one made a compelling start to the four-part series. It followed Dr Laszlo Kriezler (Daniel Bruhl), an ‘alienist’ or early psychologist who works with people suffering with mental conditions. His stance sets him apart from the time period, where we see the mentally ill shut away in horrendous institutions. However, Kriezler is distracted by a particularly gruesome murder, detailed by newspaper illustrator John Moore (Luke Evans), which suggests an incomprehensible motive. Recruiting the help of police secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), the three start to piece together the events behind the case.
Rich production values, effective sound-mixing and an excellent score by Rupert Gregson-Williams (most recently heard in The Crown and Wonder Woman) all bring to light the kind of investment being made in modern TV drama. As a period drama, The Alienist really effectively sets the scene, bringing a dingy but authentic look to the New York City setting. The costumes too, are beautifully created, even if the dark setting doesn’t always bring their intricacy to light.
Daniel Bruhl is an actor who has flown under the radar for a ridiculously long time, always delivering excellent work in films like Rush and Inglorious Basterds, along with a host of European features. The Alienist is unlikely to push him to deserved stardom but he does his best as Kriezler, a character who gives little away.
In a closing reflection, Kriezler talks about what is required of him to really understand the killer and in turn asks the question – how can one get involved with terrible crimes and come away unscathed? What does it really do to the psyche to have to explore ideas that are monstrous? It’s not a new concept for television or film, but an interesting one nonetheless, that will hopefully be explored in greater detail during the next few episodes.
This is merely a theory but some downsides to the drama might betray Fukanaga’s influence as a director before he was replaced by Verbruggen, since like his popular drama True Detective, there is a certain overexposure of graphic images, whether it’s naked women or gruesome murders.
That said, it’s so common now in drama that apparently we all must get used to awful images. I’m left wondering, as ever, how much value they give to the watcher and more importantly, what the intention was behind their presence. At times, the camera seems to leer at the women, instead of taking an intimate and permitted view, and the graphic scenes seem to test us. It doesn’t add anything to the plot, and other dramas manage to convey dark atrocities without throwing them in our faces. In turn, I wonder like Kriezler, exactly what it means if we’re to get used to seeing them.
The Alienist is an atmospheric drama that sometimes falls into its own murky waters. Excellent at setting the scene, it has a lucky star in Daniel Bruhl and makes a compelling case for the rest of the series. However, this case is sometimes marred by a reliance of graphic scenes. As the action ramps up, it’ll be interesting to know whether this continues to be a pressing issue – or indeed, if it becomes even more questionable.
The Alienist is currently showing in the United States on TNT. It will be released internationally on Netflix on April 19th.