'The Sandman' Season 1 Review: Netflix Fantasy Drama Adaptation Controls Your Dreams
Emo is back again, baby! That would be referring to Tom Sturridge's portrayal of Dream, also known as Morpheus in the new fantasy series The Sandman which is based on similarly titled comic books by Neil Gaiman. In this first season, Morpheus is captured in 1916 by an occultist until his escape 106 years later, when he's finally able to return to his place as a ruler of The Dreaming, a realm where people's dreams and nightmares happen. With the help of the realm's librarian Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), Morpheus must track down several people in order to keep The Dreaming existing. These include an escaped nightmare called Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), holder of a powerful ruby named John (David Thewlis), ruler of Hell in Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), Morpheus' sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) and a young woman called Rose (Kyo Ra) whose dream powers can shatter The Dreaming.
Even not being familiar with the source material itself, rumours about its ''unadaptable'' nature did cross over, setting expectations a bit lower than the premise does. Fortunately, the first couple episodes do pretty well in that regard to introduce one to this world, with a clear tone right from the beginning notes that mostly suits the visual style as well. There's some weirdness going on with its cinematography (including from George Steel and Sam Heasman)—which while understandable on idea level to make things look ''dreamy''—does sacrifice power of composition and depth in the process when using anamorphic, warped lenses.
In that vein, you might want to focus more on production design by Gary Steele and his team, which exceptionally creates the whimsical designs, assumably inspired by the comics, and grounds them to the real world that showrunner Allan Heinberg and his co-writers, including Gaiman, use as contrast to otherworldly stuff that Morpheus and other characters can do.
As far as that storytelling by writers goes, it is important to note that everything with Morpheus and accompanying performance by Sturridge is often the weakest part of the series. Equally important, though, is that when The Sandman truly shines, it does so with incredible radiance. Episodes five and six are the major examples to use, mostly as they simplify things so much that you could easily imagine them as stage plays that are driven by an especially brilliant turn by Thewlis that shows the actor's full range, and appearances from Howell-Baptiste and Ferdinand Kingsley as Morpheus' long-living friend Hob Gadling, who manage to make Sturridge much better than what he's shown to be in previous episodes.
Those episodes tap into a kind of richness of characters that is sometimes lacking because Morpheus and Lucienne, for example, often fade into the background when the show is busy setting up its messy ending threat. There shouldn't be such a rush in The Dreaming of all places.
Smileys: Tone, David Thewlis, production design
Frowneys: Cinematography, characterisation
Sometimes you just want to have a Hell of a time.