1899 Review: A Cluttered, Multilingual Mystery Box

A head trip from the creators of Dark, the series follows far too many characters on a voyage to America.

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1899
Photo: Netflix

A head trip from the creators of Dark, 1899 is a multilingual mystery box that follows far too many characters on a voyage to America. Right away, the series establishes that all may not be as it seems via opening narration by Maura Franklin (Emily Beecham), who talks about the human brain’s myriad capabilities before she’s revealed to be a patient in a mental hospital. Then, suddenly, she’s on the steamship Kerberos, with scars on her wrists and a mysterious letter in her luggage but no idea of how she arrived there.

Such is the mystery that’s meant to propel viewers through 1899’s eight hour-long episodes, all of which open with a moody cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and close with classic-rock needle-drops that are somehow even more bluntly obvious. Early on, just about the only thing we know for sure is that another, similar steamer disappeared without a trace along the current route of the Kerberos, and that it was portentously named the Prometheus.

The Kerberos’s well-to-do travelers won’t stop whispering about the Prometheus over breakfast, cheerfully oblivious to the filthy, cramped conditions of the less moneyed passengers below deck. Most of the first episode focuses on setting up these characters and their class dynamics, and eventually they’re deposited at the lost Prometheus, which is dilapidated and empty aside from a creepy mute boy (Fflyn Edwards) who’s locked away in a cupboard.

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The problems that will plague 1899 across its eight episodes come into the focus far sooner than the lost Prometheus does. Impossibly broad and simple, the characters speak many different languages but are lucky if they each get more than one distinguishing trait. Though the characters are often paired with someone who doesn’t speak their language at all, it never seems to stop them from monologuing to each other in their native tongue anyway.

Subsequent episodes provide snippets of the characters’ painful histories, but no one is defined by anything more than their attire, obsessions, or traumas: Daniel Solace (Aneurin Barnard), who has a bug in the pocket of his big black coat; Anker (Alexandre Willaume) and Iben (Maria Erwolter), the God-fearing parents of Tove (Clara Rosager) and Krester (Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen); Eyk Larsen (Andreas Pietschmann), the Kerberos’s drunken hunk of a captain; and Ling Yi (Isabella Wei), who speaks Cantonese but dresses like a geisha.

The character pairings are meant to emphasize their differences yet only underscore how thin they all are. If characters aren’t simply following the breadcrumb trail of mystery, then they’re seething or brooding in a corner somewhere for missing out. One thing that 1899 is not, for the most part, is slow. The series hurtles through plot twists and character reveals at a pace that gives us no time to ground ourselves and become attached to the characters involved. People are constantly being knocked out by other characters and separated only to regroup a few scenes later to continue whatever it was that they were doing. Everyone aboard the ship quickly splinters into factions, and then they just as quickly set their differences aside.

1899 offers up a few arresting images, like a weird black pyramid and the triangles found in everything from clothes and carpet to jewelry and facial hair, which provide some intrigue in the early episodes and feel like a promise of cohesion. But ahead of the predictable and unsatisfying cliffhanger, the series slows to a crawl, and there’s an inescapable sense that it’s built every inch of its reveal-driven plotting around a mystery that can’t even manage to be very mysterious.

Score: 
 Cast: Emily Beecham, Aneurin Barnard, Andreas Pietschmann, Miguel Bernardeau, Mathilde Ollivier, Jonas Bloquet, Rosalie Craig Maciej Musial, Clara Rosager, Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen, Alexandre Willaume, Maria Erwolter, Tino Mewes, Isaak Dentler, Fflyn Edwards, Anton Lesser, Isabella Wei  Network: Netflix

Steven Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed News, Fanbyte, Polygon, The Awl, Rock Paper Shotgun, EGM, and others. He is reluctantly based in the Midwest.

13 Comments

  1. Did you actually watch this? I’m glad there was not endless pointless episodes of useless character building. The series ticked on nicely until the end with snippets of character reveals, small philosophical bites, and good acting in most parts.

  2. “Dark” on the high seas. Just as infuriating and moody without the incredible casting. Clearly setting up for a season 2 of 1899 (1900?)… it’s still great fun, although clearly not horror.

  3. I agree with the review. People are babbling in a dozen different languages, but somehow they can all understand one another. At one point everyone is running around armed with guns, but then the next minute, the whole mob is in a fistfight and there is not a single gun to be seen. Ludicrous and stupid.

  4. Thank you. I binged this and found it so tedious and the ending so pointless I wish I had those 8 hours back. I couldn’t warm to the characters. The show takes itself wayyyyy to seriously, and lacks the moments of warmth and humor that make characters engaging.

    I guessed the premise from the first episode because none of the characters used appropriate dialogue or displayed the correct social conventions. They acted like 21st century characters at a costume party.

    I kept hoping it would be something more… that there would be a big payoff somewhere. There wasn’t. It was completely pointless and not even very enjoyable. The whole thing could have been half as long and the music half as overbearing. Kudos to the actors though, who did a great job with the material they were given.

  5. I gave up 30 minutes in. The Cantonese-speaking Geisha was so laughably bad and the 19th century upper-class French speaking like 21st century banlieusards and all the other clichés didn’t augur anything watchable. Thank you for comforting me in my opinion. That so many people like this garbage like many other Netflix turds is very concerning.

  6. I went into this show with extremely high expectations (because duh, D A R K), and came out confused. While I loved the filmography and the sheer work that went into the painful details (the making of is on Netflix, a 50-minute insider that I enjoyed watching), the story was a bit… too full of itself. I agree with the reviewer on many counts: a character monologues in French to another character who doesn’t understand French, yet their facial expressions are as if they understand exactly what is being said. Characters will say “how is this possible,” and then go on attempt to “get off the ship” because that totally makes sense, after they’ve seen a presumably dead boy materialize from a cabinet. Plato’s allegory, the driving philosophy behind the story, is not subtly placed, which kind of takes away the fun – think Matrix, which espouses similar Platonic and Baconian ideas and yet does so without inserting a philosophy lecture in there. This, I feel, is the issue with the writing in the series: it’s too thin, and too absorbed in driving the “twists” and plot points. I couldn’t help but compare it to the writing in D A R K, which brought together Literature and Science and Poetry and Philosophy to deliver some of the best writing I’ve seen on TV.

    Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to the second season. The people behind this show are masters of their craft. I’d also highly recommend the making of, it’s brilliant, and gives you a lot of perspective in just how much work goes into creating something like 1899.

  7. You lost me at “the show has too many characters.” Maybe you should stick with simpler films, like Dumb and Dumber.

  8. The show is crazy bad…each episode seems to to be a desperate search to find a way to salvage the story line. It NEVER succeeds.

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