Early Review: History Rewritten in ‘High Castle’

Amazon Studios has recently made available a series of television pilots for popular consumption and voting with an idea toward involving the public in the series order process (we cover 2015’s crop in this week’s Water Cooler podcast). While it remains to be seen how closely popular votes as tallied by Amazon match what makes it to series, The Man in the High Castle was one such series to survive that process. Premiering on Amazon Prime this Friday, High Castle is a gloriously epic small screen production, harkening back to the days of such great 1980s historic war miniseries like War and Remembrance and The Winds of War. High Castle is a beautifully filmed and meticulously created series that boasts a huge and hugely talented cast that could rival HBO’s Game of Thrones for period drama supremacy.

High Castle, in its own way, is as much of a fantasy series as HBO’s record-holding Emmy winner because it dares to reimagine the results of World War II. Here, the Germans and Japanese won the war, splitting the United States into three sections: the Japanese-owned Pacific States, the Great Nazi Reich of the Midwest and East, and a neutral territory called the Rocky Mountain States. The action of the series begins in 1962 with various characters operating within and investigating the American resistance. Much of the action revolves around two characters: Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a Japanese-friendly woman caught up in an act of espionage, and Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a new recruit to the American resistance.

The action of the series revolves around the transfer of a series of newsreels called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that depicts an alternate reality in which the Axis powers lost the war to the Allies. The most touching moment of the pilot shows Juliana crying as she watches one of the films, having just seen her half-sister shot dead after giving her the film. Juliana watches what is effectively a propaganda film (although we know it to be reality) with a palpable sense of wonder and wistful longing for the freedoms such a victory would guarantee. The scene is the lynchpin of the pilot, giving the illegal newsreels a vital sense of importance as many die and/or double-cross others in search of them. Aside from spy thrills, the series also pulls back to illustrate a higher level of political intrigue as Adolf Hitler is rumored to be suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and, should he die, his next in command would almost certainly start another war to wipe out America.

The performances within are all accomplished and effectively rendered against the period. As this is a pilot, all of the expected character motivations, relationships, and even identities still haven’t quite jelled yet. You know the main players, but some of the many supporting cast members haven’t fully popped yet. I do expect Rufus Sewell as SS Obergruppenführer John Smith to feature heavily in the series with a potential towards awards attention should the series fulfill its great promise. The true star of the pilot, though, is the filmmaking prowess. Aside from the complex art direction (re-imagining America as either Nazi or Japanese states is eerily and effectively rendered here), the entire production is shot in an amber hue reminiscent of the late 60s/early 70s spy thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen such grand spectacles as The Man in the High Castle on American television. The scale and spirit of those 80s-era militaristic miniseries that captivated audiences are represented well here and translate to the Amazon streaming screen in tact. In fact, it’s a bit of a shame that the series is rendered on the small screen. A project with such ambition and scope should be seen on the big screen which has lately lacked similar examples.

The Man in the High Castle debuts on Amazon Friday, November 20.


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