Drama – check, crime - check, mind-boggling psychological conundrums – double check. The Alienist is now showing on Netflix and the forensic psychology detective series has our solid stamp of approval.
The best way to describe it is Sherlock meets Jack the Ripper, with a bit of a Luther edge. The stellar line-up includes the likes of Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans, and is an adaptation of Caleb Carr’s bestselling novel set in New York during the Gilded Age. It’s gory, it’s inscrutable and it has us chewing our nails down to bloody stumps.
The “alienist” in question is Dr Laszio Kreizler (Brühl), a criminal psychologist who is conducting a secret investigation into a string of violent crimes, assisted by newspaper illustrator John Moore (Evans) and NYPD secretary Sara Howard (Fanning).
The band of social outsiders set out to find and apprehend the perpetrator, and none more fervently than Sara – a savvy, intuitive secretary. She’s intelligent, she’s fiery and she’s hard as nails.
“Sara Howard is the first woman to hold a position at the New York Police Department – she’s the secretary to Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt – so she has aspirations of being more than even that. She wants to be the first female detective,” explains Fanning, when we sit down to discuss the show.
“It’s set so long ago, back in 1896, and I think it’s unique to see the tough, strong-willed female characters portrayed in that time period just because there were so many things that women weren’t allowed to do by society, so there are less stories about females breaking through their glass ceilings and this character really is an example of that.”
Inequality and, at times, the intimidation faced by an ambitious working woman in the 19th century has also become a central theme within The Alienist.
“It’s always important for present generations to learn from and observe the past,” Fanning continues, “And I think from Sara’s story you see right away the adversity that she faces in her workplace, and among her male peers and counterparts. That’s a
big part of the series.”
Daniel Brühl’s (Captain America: Civil War, The Zookeeper’s Wife) character also faces adversity, as Dr Kreizler’s methods are ridiculed by much of society. “Psychology had just been formed and declared science in the 1870s, so these men were really progressive, modern, pioneering minds and obviously they had to face a lot of obstacles and had many enemies,” he explains.
Perhaps most fortunately placed in society of the three is Luke Evans’ (Beauty & the Beast, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) aristocratic illustrator John Moore – though even he faces his own trials in the series. “He’s a character that doesn’t really want to be in this world. He would rather be at the opera or at a nice bar, not at a crime scene, whereas the others would be very happy being in that world. It’s a good juxtaposition of characters,” says Evans.
The trio all agree that filming taught them a lot about New York’s history, despite being produced in a massive studio in Budapest.
“What makes it so interesting that it’s not only a telling crime story but also a history lesson about New York at the time,” says Brühl. “We learnt a lot – and things that [being from Europe] I didn’t know about, like Roosevelt’s running the police department before becoming president, and so this was really fascinating.”
And as you might expect, with 1890s New York comes a whole load of barbarism.
As Fanning says,“This story highlights the brutality of New York City during that time. This is when people were flooding into Manhattan from every country and trying to figure out how to live with one another. We see prejudices and so much discrimination between people in different classes.”
It’s on this note that Evans feels The Alienist – at times violent, gruesome, shocking and ridiculing of progress – in many respects holds up a mirror to society today.
“We’ve come a long way but when you see a lot of this story – which is essentially fictional based in a factual moment of New York’s history – you see we haven’t come very far at all. In our stance on the class division, the rich and the poor, the poor, immigration problems, the police force, corruption and the power struggle.
“We see it all represented very clearly, quite historically accurately, in that moment of New York’s history. And we still have some of those problems now.”
Just how the trio tackle their obstacles suddenly sounds very relevant indeed.
The Alienist is streaming now on Netflix.