Wednesday, 21 January 2015

TV REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle

As part of Amazon's new run of pilot episodes, The Man in the High Castle is so far just one small part of a much larger story that is begging to be told. I'll be candid: I've not actually read the original novel by Philip K. Dick (it's on the list, OK?) Dick's works are notoriously difficult to capture successfully on film. Ridley Scott was, of course, responsible for altering the acclaimed novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? into the even more celebrated film Blade Runner. How extensive his work is here, as executive producer, isn't clear, but The Man in the High Castle does capture the astonishing attention to detail and visual panache that made Blade Runner such a masterpiece of world building. The script, by Howard Brenton and Frank Spotnitz, is remarkably utilitarian, with little of the flashy dialogue we've come to expect from shows trying to make an impression. It feels very natural and is all the more powerful for it. We spend only an hour in this world, but the vision of America we experience is entirely believable, recognisably the sixties America of a thousand movies but skewed and leached of hope. Unlike the original novel, this is a period piece, and therefore has a certain amount of further work to do in creating its world.

While any adaptation is bound to alter certain details, I understand that fans of the novel have, for the most part, been pleased with how little has been changed. As yet, this is set-up that, if Amazon have any sense, will be expanded into a full series which may, of course, move in unforeseen directions. As someone who is new to the story, I wonder if I am actually at an advantage; able to be surprised by developments. The revelation of one character's loyalties at the episode's end came as a surprise to me, although, in retrospect, it was hinted at by a cheeky bit of Scott set dressing. (Hint: you'll think Blade Runner again.) As with much of Dick's work, we are encouraged to question everything we see, and I'm sure there are more surprises to come.

The concept of a world in which the Axis won WWII is a cliche, of course, but only because it holds such endless fascination in our culture that it has been used time and time again, and will continue to be so. The conquered and divided States here are a little one-sided; the Japanese Pacific States seem too pleasant on first exploration, although the existence of a ruthless police force show how this is only surface deep. Nonetheless, while I applaud the representation of the Japanese people as varied in culture and attitude, I wonder if they are being made to acceptable as an occupying force here. Life for those under Japanese occupation in the War was horrific, and I wonder if things would have been so much better by this alternative 1962. The Nazi-occupied side, on the other hand, has the feel of occupied France all through it, right down to the resistance. A Nazi-ruled America is familiar enough from fiction, and this is perhaps the best and most believable depiction I have seen. Nonetheless, the Nazi forces come of far less attractively than the Japanese; they are, so far, villainous through and through. Hopefully further episodes will illuminate and explore all sides of the conflict more equally.

All that said, this is a masterful depiction of life under foreign rule, where ordinary people are pushed to extremes by the harsh political realities of their world. Huge praise is due for the cast, all of whom sell this world convincingly. In particular Alexa Davalos as Juliana, a wonderful but underused actress; Luke Kleintank as Joe, who carries much of the episode just driving in near silence and remains absorbing; and the great Rufus Sewell, who is terrifying as the calmly cruel Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. We need to see more of them and the torn apart world they inhabit. More please, and soon.

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