Orlando Bloom is returning to the fantasy past – but not as far back as “The Lord of The Rings” and “The Hobbit” – in his first TV series, Amazon’s “Carnival Row” (streaming Friday).
“Carnival” offers mythological creatures and magical elements, but it seasons that ethereal air with plenty of soot, courtesy of a grimy setting that suggests Victorian-era London with a steampunk vibe.
“It’s that dingy, dirty, industrial feeling that life is hard and real,” says Bloom. “It has that Dickensian England feel. When you put a fantasy in something that is so tangible and real, it works very well.”
Bloom’s Rycroft “Philo” Philostrate, who grew up an orphan and is a veteran of an ugly war, straddles both worlds in the eight-episode “Carnival,” which filmed its city scenes in Prague.
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He’s a detective investigating serial killings along seedy Carnival Row, a stand-in for Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel in a city known as The Burgue. He’s also involved in a complicated inter-species relationship with the winged faerie Vignette Stonemoss (Cara Delevingne), a member of the fae folk, one of many species that migrate to The Burgue as refugees from wars started by men.
There, the fae folk and other species, including fauns and centaurs, try to survive under the oppressive thumb of unwelcoming humans.
“The story is about fear. The Burguish man fears the fae folk. The fae folk fear the Dark Asher,” a monster that preys on faeries, Bloom says. “Philo has a fear of being found out because he’s a man of secrets. He has things to hide.”
On a larger level, the veneer of the fantasy and noir crime formats gives “Carnival” cover to explore difficult contemporary issues.
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“We’re talking about race, migrants and war-torn refugees, (but) it’s all cleverly disguised in a serial killing, murder thriller,” Bloom says.
The immigration story is especially relevant today, although its significance goes back long before creator and executive producer Travis Beacham wrote “Carnival Row” 17 years ago.
“Carnival,” which has been renewed for Season 2, took a long, circuitous path to the screen. Once planned as a movie, it underwent expensive reshoots as a TV series. Beacham thought it would never get made, “so to be in Prague and literally be standing on Carnival Row and seeing these people in costumes … it’s very surreal,” he says.
“The migrant refugee issue has been going on for generations. But we’re seeing it today in more of an impactful way than ever before,” Bloom says. “The thing we are able to do beautifully is look at the humanity in many different painful situations that families around the world are suffering under. Whether you are afraid of people coming to your community or afraid of how you’re going to be received when you get to a community, we’re looking at all of it.”
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Philo has an affinity for the immigrant fae folk, having seen them suffer firsthand in the war, and he feels protective toward them and others living in dangerous circumstances.
“He’s is a tortured man, riddled with the pain of his past, but he ultimately displays love and empathy in his interactions with all the beings on Carnival Row,” Bloom says. “He is a light to those beings, a safe space.”
Philo also has a deeply personal affection through his past relationship with Vignette, who feels betrayed by the lover she thought was dead when they meet again in The Burgue.
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Their complicated interaction suggests “an interracial relationship, the idea of a Burguish man getting together with a fae girl. It’s poked at and made fun of, but we explore the beauty and the humanity and the heart of a real connection between these two people and the tragedy of the way the world throws itself at them,” he says.
For all the sadness and misery, there are also scenes of visual beauty and elements of sex, romance and love.
“The subject matter is so serious and very real. It’s death and violence. So, if you miss the sexy element, then where’s the light at all?” Delevingne says. “And … it’s very necessary to the storylines. It’s an important element.”
It also can be eye-catching and even a bit funny, as when winged faerie women working in a hotel brothel literally take sex to new heights by raising their human clients into the air.
“If nothing else, the faerie sex levitation scenes are something to tune in for,” Bloom says.