The Sandman review: atmospheric and evocative, but could’ve dreamed bigger

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Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman stars Tom Sturridge as Dream of the Endless – but is the series itself the stuff of nightmares?

Sometimes Tom Sturridge seems like he stepped straight out of a dream himself. He is striking to look at, with sharp cheekbones and a dark, thoughtful expression on his face; he speaks in a deep, hoarse whisper, with an imperious tone befitting the king of dreams. Sturridge is a relative unknown – certainly bringing less weight to the role than Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the former director/star of The Sandman, who left an earlier iteration of the project after creative differences – but he feels somehow familiar. If carved from fantasy, it’s a Tumblr-influenced vision of the exact midpoint between Benedict Cumberbatch, Matt Smith, and Colin Morgan.

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It’s undoubtedly a strong accomplishment, and even if it’s obviously difficult to achieve, Sturridge makes it look effortless. Sturridge presents Dream – one of seven all-powerful siblings, each an anthropomorphic representation of a different abstract concept – almost like an aristocrat first humiliated, a life of influence tempered by new insecurities. “Dream” is austere and imposing, and sits some distance from the audience for most of “The Sandman”; there is a kind of unfathomable curiosity in Sturridge’s gaze, always seemingly laser-focused on something, though it’s seldom obvious what he’s thinking or what he’s looking at. At one point, a warmth rushes through, but for much of the Netflix series, Dream proves to be an intriguingly difficult protagonist.

However, sometimes you get the feeling that Dream himself is the least interesting character of the Sandman. The Sandman is structured like a sort of travelogue: it begins with an occult ritual to capture Death, albeit one that goes awry and captures Dream instead. At the mercy of a necromancer for decades, Dream is weakened and confused in his eventual escape, stripped of totems that give him his power. These opening episodes follow Dream’s struggle to retrieve his helm, ruby ​​and sandbag – a complex quest that will take him from the depths of hell to darkest London, confronting devils and exorcists, tricksters and swindlers. the legendary and the lost.

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The Sandman quickly takes on an anthology-like structure, with Dream himself being less of a protagonist – and certainly not a superhero, despite his comic book origins alongside Batman and the Martian Manhunter – and more of a narrator, almost that of Rod Serling, the twilight zone in Neil Gaiman’s mind . Quite willing to take detours and distractions, the series often finds itself more interested in the lives of its supporting characters than its eponymous, albeit nominal, lead. It’s easy to appreciate that instinct, not least because it allowed the production to cast overqualified actors in non-binding supporting roles, but also because it allows the series to embrace a wider range of tones and tones [ideas] than it otherwise could have been.

Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine and Tom Sturridge as Dream. They stand close together and are lit in the dark by blurry streetlights (Credit: Liam Daniel/Netflix)

This sometimes has its disadvantages. As mentioned, Dream can feel like The Sandman’s least interesting character. While most of the time it’s a pathway into more interesting worlds, the series sometimes deviates from that, and Dream feels less like a conduit and more of an obstacle. You’ll wish the camera followed a different character when Dream slips out of a scene that the series could succumb to its tendency to wander a little more. (Or in other words, Whenever Jenna Coleman is off-screen, all other characters should ask, “Where’s Jenna Coleman?”) The series also occasionally misjudges in its tonal fluctuations, with some comic book elements sitting a little clumsily – Patton Oswalt’s self-assured raven feels lost on his way to a Marvel film, a bumbling sidekick who’s always at odds with strict high fantasy that’s what sets the series apart.

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It is certainly notable that of the six episodes made available to the critics, the best two confine Sturridge (and, fortunately, Oswalt) to minor supporting roles. In the fifth episode, John Dee (David Thewlis), the new owner of Dream’s Ruby, manipulates the patrons of a 24-hour diner; The sixth sees Dream accompanying his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) as she visits the dying, then tells the story of how Dream met Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley), who may be the closest thing to a friend he has Has. It’s not that the opening episodes are significantly weaker, but where they struggle to articulate the importance of dreaming and storytelling, the intense variety of this later short story-like approach comes closer to embodying The Sandman’s full potential.

At least what each episode has in common is that they all belong to a fairly sizable show, moody and atmospheric to the point of indulgence: it’s clear that Netflix and Warner Bros have thrown money at The Sandman, and it’s also clear that they are it was money well spent. The Sandman is packed with memorable, awe-inspiring imagery, from its huge CGI dreamscapes to more tactile bits of set design, like Dream’s gas-mask-by-way-of-HR Giger helmet. Admittedly, it’s sometimes easy to wish the show had been a bit more experimental visually — breaking with straight-forward realism, finding more abstract ways of expressing things, or at least sticking to a less consistent house style episode after episode — as it certainly should a show about dreams, or indeed a comic often praised for doing the same.

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But in the end it’s always a very well done show, and a thoroughly entertaining one at that. You could even say that Sandman is the stuff dreams are made of – although sometimes you hope he dreamed just a little bit bigger.

The Sandman is now available to stream on Netflix; I watched 6 episodes out of a total of 10 before writing this review. You can find more of ours TV reviews here.

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