The Sandman review: Sweeping, spellbinding TV
Ivan | On 07, Aug 2022
“We kept a chronicle of everything that happened in your absence, but slowly the words began to fade.” That’s Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), the loyal number two to Lord Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), after he returns to his kingdom following a very lengthy time away. Morpheus, the Sandman of the title, is the king of dreams, aka Dream of the Endless, a figure who has the power to create, destroy and control dreams, giving humanity the nocturnal slumber it needs to exist while holding its nightmares in check. And if that sounds like a big concept to try and capture on screen, rest assured: this beautifully expansive adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series successfully wrestles with its sweeping stories and characters by creating a mood as much as a narrative.
Tom Sturridge is gloom personified as Morpheus, who finds himself summoned in 1916 by the sinister occultist Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance, on deliciously imposing form). When he turns out to be Dream and not Death – one of Dream’s Endless siblings, which include Desire, Destiny, Despair, Delirium and Destruction – he’s imprisoned in Roderick’s basement for decades. In that time, Morpheus’ kingdom crumbles, sending people around the world into a lifeless, never-ending slumber. And so begins a quest for him to regain his powers and restore balance to the universe – starting with his sand, his ruby and his helmet, which help to harness his powers.
That classic fetch-magical-objects formula gives the opening episodes of the fantasy epic a loosely familiar structure, but what becomes apparent is that this is a show content to take its time with its world-building. The visuals are lovingly rendered, recalling panels from the original comic book and every time the dialogue threatens to be dragged down by exposition, it drifts into flourishes of poetry. The pacing is patient and brooding enough to flesh out every idea and character we encounter. There’s room for the unnerving authority of the three fates – a trinity of women right out of Macbeth – for the comic relief of the biblical brothers Cain (a stern Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Abel (a chirpy Asim Chaudhry), for the wonder of seeing a gargoyle called Gregory (or is it Irving?) come to life, for the fun of Patton Oswalt voicing Matthew, Morpheus’ cynical yet helpful raven sidekick, and for the gruesome, graphic brutality of nightmare-let-loose Corinthian (a brilliantly menacing Boyd Holbrook).
The latter marks it clear that this is a programme for adults, something cemented by the scene-stealing appearance of Johanna Constantine. Jenna Coleman immediately demands her own spin-off as the excorcist-cum-detective, whose sarcastic, stubborn, compassionate presence is at home in a world of nightmarish visions and dark forces. When it comes to the number of head explosions per episode. The Sandman stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of the current wave of fantasy TV sagas.
And yet where The Sandman finds its strength is in its quiet moments of nuance and huge emotional and moral strokes. It’s a rich cauldron of themes and feelings, stuffed with regret, guilty, purpose and longing. Roderick, we soon learn, is driven by a desire to bring back his dead son, and that grief and loneliness is echoed by stunning turns from Joely Richardson as Ethel, the mother of the troubled John, played with haunted frailty by David Thewlis. His gaunt, shifting complexion is magnetic to watch, as we watch a cruel and bitter figure also find depths of earnest intent – watching a figure try to rediscover some sense of morality is almost a passing concern in this swirling sea of notions and beliefs.
Throughout runs a vein of despair and hope, which is crystallised in a jaw-dropping battle of hypotheticals between Dream and Lucifer (an icily smirking Gwendoline Christie). Trading theoretical concepts like explosions in a CGI blockbuster, it’s a mesmerising demonstration of the power that ideas can hold. The Sandman is at its best in its ability to do just that, translating abstract thoughts into thrillingly tangible drama that embraces the flawed complexity and contradictions of human nature. It’s a confident, compelling piece of TV that bursts with almost too many ideas, places, times and people, yet never loses its spellbinding sense of imagination. If you tried to write down everything that happened in it, you’d end up tied in knots – but The Sandman’s words linger, with no threat of them fading any time soon.