I’m pretty sure I read the novel – but about 35 years ago – so I’d actually forgotten who the man in the high castle turns out to be in The Man in the High Castle, although it seems obvious once you see it.
Amazon’s production has had a long gestation, with Ridley Scott attached to it as executive producer. I think it started as an idea for the BBC, and thank goodness they didn’t make it, because they wouldn’t have spent enough on it. Then I think it was hovering around SyFy, as a four-parter, before finally fetching up as an Amazon Original.
Somewhere along the way it has ballooned from a four-part mini series with a beginning, middle, and end, into a 10-part series which leaves an opening for a sequel. If it has a flaw, it’s that it does feel unnecessarily stretched in terms of its action/plot ratio. It has the pacing of a Mad Men rather than a Blacklist, which depending on your taste might be an issue.
Along with lots of others, I watched the pilot a while ago, and I’ve been quite keen to see the rest. The opening episode sets up the premise brilliantly, with superb production design evoking an alternate 1962. The maguffin of the book, the stories, are transformed here into visual media (newsreels), and our lead character (Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain) starts to investigate the mysterious alternate world they show. So this is both a period drama (1962) and science fiction (counterfactual history), rolled into one. In those terms, Amazon have done a stunning job in the mise-en-scène, from costume design through backgrounds, vehicles, hair, properties.
West of the Rockies, the US is occupied by the Japanese, so there’s a militaristic Kokutai (?) culture based around Imperial power. With the mountain states nominally neutral, the Eastern US is occupied by Nazi Germany, with Hitler still alive and ruling from Berlin. In terms of production design, then, the producers had three different looks to play with: a Japanese puppet state, a Nazi puppet state, and a grimly clinging on neutral zone. Action switches between the two puppet states, with characters from both flung together in the neutral zone.
All of which is set up in the first episode: what follows is a slowly unfolding plot with a large cast of characters, struggling for and against the occupying powers. In Germany, Hitler’s grip on power is loosening as he gets older, and a power struggle is erupting. Similar manoeuvrings are afflicting the Japanese and a very few brave souls are operating a resistance movement – or are they?
What I liked about this was that while the acting is great, there were very few ‘names’. The one person I recognised was Rupert Sewell as a truly sinister American Nazi who has to face up to the horrors of his own philosophy in a personal way.
The nominal plot (trying to track down these mysterious films and deliver them to someone) is less important than the overall atmosphere and the character drama, which involves 1984-style breaking of the human spirit mixed with love and betrayal. Mad Men is a good reference point, not just for the pacing of the show, but also the fact that it was a period drama (same era) which tried to encompass big ideas about culture within a show ‘about’ advertising. Man in the High Castle has nuance: not all the ‘bad guys’ are bad guys. There are a couple of strong female characters, too, though not as many as there could be.
I watched most of it over a weekend. It’s (potentially) Amazon’s Game of Thrones.
Talking of 1962, I went to see Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which was very good. Again, great production design and photography. But with my usual fussiness about digital projection and the screening experience, I found myself distracted by focus issues, jittery movements, and weird distortions at the screen edges. And it wasn’t even IMAX!