This review is SPOILER-FREE
In a TV landscape that’s becoming increasingly dominated by big-budget fantasy shows (in the next few months we have The Rings of Power, House of the Dragon, Willow and the final season of His Dark Materials) it seems to be the perfect time to finally bring Neil Gaiman‘s seminal, 75-issue comic book epic The Sandman to the screen. After decades of film adaptations languishing in development hell, it’s easy for fans to meet this ten-part series with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Is The Sandman a dream come true, or a nightmare destined to leave fans disappointed?
It’s 1916, and with millions being slaughtered in the First World War, wealthy Magus Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) decides to summon and imprison Death. He partly succeeds, instead trapping Dream of the Endless, also known as Morpheus (Tom Sturridge). Stripping Dream of his helm, ruby and sand, the Magus believes that he can bargain with the Endless, but eternity is a long time to wait. Dream’s absence causes ripples across not only the waking world but also the infinity of the Dreaming, and when he is finally able to break free, he must reclaim his tools, re-build his realm and stop the nightmares unleashed into the waking world…
The Sandman is exactly the sort of high-concept story one would expect from the legendary Neil Gaiman, so it’s exciting to see that Netflix have committed entirely (reportedly spending $165 million on this first season alone). It looks incredibly cinematic, while David Buckley‘s sweeping score aptly captures the scope of the series. After watching the first two chapters – Sleep of the Just and Imperfect Hosts – I have to say that while this isn’t an exact translation, it is certainly a very strong adaptation of the source material. The changes made aren’t too significant, and feel right for the TV format, as well as updating some superficial aspects (the ‘present day’ sequences have been moved to 2022, rather than 1989). The greatest achievement of The Sandman is that it manages to capture the essence of the graphic novels – the key to any screen adaptation.
Tom Sturridge makes a very strong first impression as Dream. He’s an incredibly difficult character for any actor to portray, given the Dream’s backstory (as one of the Endless who have lived for millennia), and the potentially contradictory challenge of emoting so the audience can understand him without overly-emoting so that he comes across as human. Sturridge is able to balance these aspects, whilst maintaining a strong (but not overpowering) screen presence, although arguably he’s at his best when he’s simply staring down his captors in Chapter 1: the intensity in his eyes says more than words ever could. It’s clear that Sturridge has put a lot of thought into his performance, and crafting such a complex character. Perhaps my only concern might be the decision to have Dream narrate the opening prologue – it arguably loses the character some of his mystique by talking to the audience directly, but it does explain the concept of the series clearly for new audiences.
The Sandman also features a incredibly impressive supporting cast, including Charles Dance, Bill Paterson, David Thewlis (glimpsed briefly in the second chapter, with an already creepy performance), Jenna Coleman, Asim Chaudhry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Mason Alexander Park, Stephen Fry, Patton Oswalt, Mark Hamill, Lenny Henry, Vivienne Acheampong and Boyd Holbrook as the Corinthian, an escaped nightmare. He’s a shadowy presence in these opening chapters, clearly set-up as this season’s ‘big bad’, but makes for a fun antagonist; I can’t wait to see where they go next with him.
Overall, The Sandman is off to a very strong start: a faithful adaptation of the comics with some understandable changes. It’s atmospheric, surreal (the sequence with the Fates is a standout), and surprisingly funny and sweet (the dynamic between Bhaskar and Chaudry’s Caine and Abel is very entertaining). The production values are generally strong, bolstered by some great design work (obviously influenced by the original comics), although the visual effects work can vary between slightly-off-looking green screen work to a pretty-much-photorealistic gargoyle. If the series can play to its strengths over the following eight episodes, it could be something truly special – and I honestly can’t wait to watch the rest.