Netflix’s new limited series Transatlantic is the reversal of the streamer’s recent Elvis-as-animated spy comedy Agent Elvis.
Of Agent Elviswas it: come for the silly premise, genre hijinks and a sweet (thoroughly historically accurate) masturbating chimpanzee, stay for the surprisingly well-researched exploration of 1960s and 1970s esotericism.
It comes down to
A mildly entertaining introduction.
Of Transatlanticc, I came to what is a spectacular, perhaps under-known corner of history, with tendrils in European cultural esotericism of the 1930s and 1940s, and I was left with genre hijacks, surreal madness and a sweet (by and by historically correct) dog.
Take that as you please.
If Transatlantic came on Netflix with a guarantee that any viewer who tuned in would immediately learn more about the story of Varian Fry, Mary Jayne Gold and the Villa Air-Bel, I would give it a strong recommendation.
The series, which comes from Unorthodox co-creator Anna Winger and Daniel Handler, is a frothy adventure yarn that steers romance in its classic Hollywood style more than any Holocaust-adjacent darkness. It’s lighter on its feet and more generally entertaining than any summary of its subject would suggest. But since everything where you come from Transatlantic with a superficial understanding of the subject – the tip of the tip of the iceberg and maybe not even that – it’s easy to feel it’s something, but hard to feel it’s enough.
I said the story of Varian Fry, Mary Jayne Gold, and the Villa Air-Bel was little known, but that’s not the same as “unknown.” It featured—more than a footnote, but less than a chapter—in PBS’ essential documentary The US and the Holocaust and has been the subject of several well-researched books. Transatlantic uses Julie Arranger’s The flight portfolio — a well-researched novel inspired by the story — as a source and that source, in turn, is only credited here as “inspired by.” So it is “inspired by” something “inspired by” the truth. And it shows!
The series begins in 1940 in Marseille. Former journalist Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith) works as part of the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization dedicated to extracting a small roster of European novelists, writers and thinkers from France before it collapses completely. the Nazis. For the most part, Fry works within the bureaucratic system, seeking wholly legal visas and transportation, without upsetting the delicate balance of American neutrality, represented here by Corey Stoll as Consul Graham Patterson.
Lending a hand is Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), a Chicago heiress who has decided to use her father’s money to help these refugees in any way she can. If Fry is initially determined to paint within the legal rules, Gold and her wire fox terrier Scrooge are more willing to bribe, seduce, and do whatever it takes.
Over seven episodes that are usually less than 50 minutes long and cover no clear time frame for me to explain, Fry and Gold learn that they need to expand their idea of what is possible and what is necessary. They are assisted by an assortment of real and composite figures, including fugitive resistance fighter Albert (Lucas Englander), US attaché Hiram Bingham (Luke Thompson), plucky Lisa Fittko (Deleila Piasko), North African hotel concierge Paul ( Ralph Amoussou) and Thomas (Amit Rahav), a Brit with a connection to Fry’s past.
Thomas’s involvement brings everyone to the dilapidated castle called Villa Air-Bel, which briefly became a way station for a who’s who of fleeing cultural celebrities.
Transatlantic alternates between striving to be Nazi Resistance Struggle For Dummies And Surrealism for dummiesmore successfully as the former and most amusing and annoying as the latter.
Casablanca is, was and always will be the epitome of banter-driven romantic thrillers about whether or not people have the right papers to leave a war-torn country. You can see his influence in the structure, characterizations, and bittersweet arc of Winger and Hendler’s season, though very rarely in the dialogue. Instead of the dialogue that is essential to why Casablanca remains one of the most rewatchable movies ever made, Transatlantic mirrors that movie’s sense of fun with an almost episode-wise sequence of escapes, escapes, and mini-heists. There are ironed-out Nazis, snivelling French collaborators, and a stream of noble and nefarious villains.
I spend so many reviews complaining that things are too padded and too long so let me complain here Transatlantic is too short. Some of the episodic adventures are distracting, but none really impress. Nor did I find any of the romances forged against this perilous backdrop worth an emotional investment. But it’s never less than a distraction.
It’s all set against locations in Marseille, shot for impeccably polished touristic grandeur rather than gritty terror. The show is in such a hurry and the timeline is so compact that it’s hardly possible to understand what Fry and Gold were doing, let alone get any sense of the true scope of the operation that, as to see in the series, marginalize people like Bingham. and managed too many figures to count, starting with American artist Miriam Davenport.
Transatlantic uses Jacobs’ unavoidably modern affect as a way to underline a statement about Gold as a modern woman trying to find her voice in a historical setting. Jacobs totally looks like a Warner Bros. contract player. circa 1940 — extra kudos to Justine Seymour’s costumes — and she’s integral in delivering some of the humor that would have been implied only on the page, especially in regards to the instantly adorable Scrooge.
The show is much more comfortable with Gold’s voice and characterization than Fry’s, leaning into revelations about his sexuality without connecting that to anything about his past or the extreme actions he takes in the present. Smith at least plays that uncertainty as heroic inconvenience and makes it plausible. Neither has much chemistry with their respective love interests, but they have great scenes together and with Stoll, who epitomizes the callous, smarmy obviousness of American isolationism at the time.
Of the supporting revolutionaries, Piasco and Amoussou come closest to giving depth to their characters.
No one is nearly as successful or as fortunate when it comes to sizing up the various refugees, most of whom receive exclusively nameless treatment. If you know who Walter Benjamin (Moritz Bleibtreu) is, you’ll be treated to one scene where someone summarizes The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction and he explains Tikkun olam. It’s not much, but it’s much more of an explanation for his central role than anything the show does with the likes of Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, and Marcel Duchamp.
There are some quirky moments with the various Surrealists – André Breton, Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer getting the biggest spotlight – circling the Villa, saying bizarre things and holidaying in weird ways. But at most Transatlantic will inspire visits to Wikipedia rather than just provide information.
While the influence of Surrealism is rarely felt in the actual text of the series, the closing credits, shot in grainy black and white, capture a cross between Surrealism and Weimar German Expressionism in a short but wonderfully playful way. The series could have used more of that eccentricity and more of the flavor of its black-and-white opening sequence, an acknowledgment and evocation of the art of the period rather than a commitment to modern accessibility.
Will that accessibility lead viewers to seek additional information, realize the individual ways in which the Surrealists were important, and learn how much bigger and more important Fry and Gold’s work was than what is merely a snapshot here? I hope so. I can credit Transatlantic for its digestibility, while lamenting that a great series about this moment and setting could have been made. This isn’t it.