‘ Alienist’ gets down and dirty

The Republican Herald - This Weekend - - News - BY LOR­RAINE ALI LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Part “Gangs of New York,” part “The Knick” and part “Mind­hunter,” TNT’s “The Alienist” pairs grue­some, se­rial killer car­nage with horse- and- car­riage charm­for this psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller set in 19th cen­tury Man­hat­tan.

The 10- episode lim­ited se­ries, which pre­miered Mon­day, is as much about a mur­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion as it is about the roots of our present­day ideas on gen­der, men­tal ill­ness and so­cio- eco­nom­ics.

Adapted fromCaleb Carr’s best­selling 1994 novel, “The Alienist” takes view­ers through the filthy ten­e­ments and op­u­lent par­lors of 1896 New York, ex­plor­ing the baby stages of foren­sic science, mod­ern psy­chol­ogy and fem­i­nism along the way.

Fans of the book who’ve waited decades for this story to come to life on­screen — big or small— will no doubt find this skill­fully pro­duced ren­di­tion full of prom­ise: What did they get right or wrong or take lib­er­ties with? With Cary Fuku­naga, Jakob Ver­bruggen and Hos­sein Amini among the top cred­its, the pro­duc­tion ar­rives with built- in cred­i­bil­ity.

Those not fa­mil­iar with the book, how­ever, may have a harder time sink­ing into a story where the char­ac­ter devel­op­ment and act­ing ( at least in early episodes) is up­staged by the phe­nom­e­nal de­pic­tion of a city on the brink of mod­ern­iza­tion. In short, “The Alienist” is good ver­sus stun­ning.

In the first two episodes avail­able for re­view, we meet “alienist” Dr. Las­zlo Krei­zler ( Daniel Bruhl), who stud­ies atyp­i­cal hu­man be­hav­ior and the mind. He’s re­ferred to as an “alienist,” be­cause, as it’s ex­plained in the show: “In the 19th cen­tury, per­sons suf­fer­ing from­men­tal ill­ness were thought to be alien­ated from their own true na­tures. Experts who stud­ied them were there­fore known as alienists.”

Krei­zler is me­thod­i­cal, de­tached and full of him­self. He’s shown as strik­ing fear and re­spect in those around him as he de­fies con­ven­tional wis­dom aboutwhat con­sti­tutes “nor­mal” be­hav­ior, and looks be­yond the sta­tus quo for an­swers. But de­spite all the in­tense close- ups and heavy mu­sic ac­com­pa­ny­ing his char­ac­ter, he’s not a strong or par­tic­u­larly be­liev­able pres­ence right out of the gate.

His ac­quain­tance, the sen­si­tive il­lus­tra­tor and jour­nal­ist John Moore ( Luke Evans), is meant to be everything Krei­zler is not: im­pul­sive, driven by emo­tion and easy to read.

Their re­la­tion­ship proves use­ful when the doc­tor wants to study the mo­tives be­hind the mur­der of a child pros­ti­tute yet lacks the ac­cess that Moore has as a jour­nal­ist.

There is some chem­istry be­tween the two, but again, it’s the beauty and grime around them that proves the more in­ter­est­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion.

Moore re­cruits Sara Howard ( Dakota Fan­ning), an old fam­ily friend with whom he ap­pears to be in love. But the prag­matic and driven Howard could not give a fig about courting, mak­ing her an anom­aly in a so­ci­ety where mar­riage is the only prospect for up­per- crust women such as her­self.

She’s de­ter­mined to be taken se­ri­ously at the all­male precinct, which, in the pa­tri­ar­chal 19th cen­tury, is no easy task. She’s a cu­rios­ity and/ or prey among the all­male staff, some of whom treat her like glass, oth­ers who de­base her hourly.

Think of it as Har­vey We­in­stein work en­vi­rons, sans elec­tric­ity and a cen­tury’sworth of pro­gres­sive win­dow­dress­ing.

Howard’s nar­ra­tive and the sto­ries of poor im­mi­grants, os­tra­cized gay men and oth­ers in “The Alienist” un­der­pin is­sues we grap­ple with to­day, in­clud­ing the di­rect re­la­tion­ship be­tween class and the qual­ity of health­care one re­ceives. It’s an in­equity that plays out in squalid down­town tav­erns and the pri­vate din­ing room at Del­monico’s.

The bumpy car­riage ride be­tween these lo­cales and so­cial strata is filled with fog, bon­fires, whiskey flasks and filth. It’s a won­der any­one lived past age 10 here. And in many cases, they don’t but not be­cause of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis — which is where the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­gins.

The hunt to solve and stop the mur­der of young male pros­ti­tutes is sus­pense­ful and filled with bur­geon­ing foren­sic science, such as study­ing “fin­ger marks.” ( No two are alike!)

But the crime- solv­ing here is a gory and graphic af­fair, where car­nage, cru­elty and un­timely death de­mand their close- up ev­ery few min­utes: dis­mem­bered chil­dren, ex­huma­tions, weep­ing late- stage pox, med­i­cal pro­ce­dures done with tools right out of a Mar­i­lynMan­son video.

In the queasy male brothel scene, the ex­ploita­tion of boys is a sor­did af­fair. It’s shown in markedly dif­fer­ent light than scenes in another whore­house, where the trans­ac­tion be­tween a pre­sum­ably teenage girl and older man is styl­ized and sexy.

“The Alienist” is a grip­ping pro­duc­tion that’s beau­ti­ful, dis­turb­ing and maybe even promis­ing if its earnest char­ac­ters can keep up with the wicked city around them.

MCCLATCHY NEWS­PA­PERS

Luke Evans stars in the new TNT lim­ited se­ries “The Alienist.”

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