Netflix UK TV review: The Liberator
James R | On 11, Nov 2020
“I owe something to a group of men,” writes US army officer Felix Sparks in a letter home to his wife, in which he explains why he’s heading back to the front. It’s a move that, following injury, goes against his orders, and comes to epitomise both the maverick soldier and the Netflix series inspired by his WWII heroics.
Based on the book The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey by Alex Kershaw, the four-part drama follows Sparks after he’s given charge of the 157th Infantry Regiment. A rag-tag bunch of diverse troopers – Native Americans, Mexican-Americans and Oklahoma cowboys – they’re overlooked and shunned by their superiors, but Sparks convinces them to join together and prove they’re as good as anyone else in uniform.
It’s a rousing, uplifting demonstration of humanity and compassion, and the series excels at depicting key moments of unity, such as when Sparks stands up to a bullying drill sergeant – with the support of Sergeant Coldfoot (Martin Sensmeier). Former Merlin star Bradley James is magnetic in the lead role, clearly relishing the chance to take the lead role and bringing with it a swaggering attitude that’s amusingly stubborn but winningly defiant.
The ambitious project began as an eight-part live-action series, but arrives on our screens as a four-part part-animated series. There are pros and cons to that cost-cutting and slimming down, a process that gives the show its striking visuals: the drama is the first to be produced using “Trioscope”, a hybrid technology that fuses live-action footage with 3D CGI environments and a smattering of 2D animation.
It’s gorgeous and mesmerising to see in action, heightening the intensity of the conflict while also giving it a tactile, handmade quality that grounds all four episodes. Director Grzegorz Jonkajtys’ work recalls Waltz with Bashir or Amazon’s recent series Undone, capturing the facial expressions of its cast with a cross-hatched intimacy and the foggy landscapes with a beautiful atmosphere.
From the Invasion of Italy to the liberation of Dachau, the action is paced throughout the series to maintain suspense, but the downside of the condensed structure and scope is that Jeb Stuart’s script focuses on Sparks more than the men he leads. There is time for subtle shades amid the brushwork: Sensmeier is superb as the conflicted Coldfoot, who fights to maintain his composure in the face of hostile prejudice, Jose Miguel Vasquez is excellent as Corporal Gomez, and Tatanka Means brings a moving nuance to Private Otaktay, who opens up about the disrespect implicit in his nickname “Chief”. The series even extends its humanist philosophy to the enemy forces, with moments featuring Nazi soldiers away from the front line emphasising that every soldier with their life at stake is an individual thrown into this brutal fray.
But you also wish there were more time to step out from Sparks’ noble shadow. The result is a vivid, distinctive drama that brings a fresh perspective to World War II, its unusual imagery backing up its stirringly different focus on unsung heroes. If the script is slightly lacking, it’s mainly testament to the show’s overall themes, and the strong cast, that you wind up wanting to spend more time with all of them.
The Liberator is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.