'Transatlantic' Review: 'Unorthodox' Creator's Next Limited Series

‘Transatlantic’ Review: ‘Unorthodox’ Creator’s Next Limited Series

Piecing together pivotal historical events in a limited series in order to create a compelling narrative is a tall task. However, creator and writer Anna Winger is no stranger to this work. Her 2020 adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, “Unorthodox,” which followed one Jewish woman’s liberation from her Hasidic community, received critical acclaim. With her latest series, “Transatlantic,” an adaptation of Julie Orringer’s novel “The Flight Portfolio,” Winger is again centering real-life figures fighting against oppression. From 1940 to 1941, literary journalist Varian Fry and American heiress Mary Jayne Gold were instrumental in helping pivotal Jewish writers and artists flee France amid the Nazi occupation. However, while Esty Shapiro’s personal journey to freedom in the contemporary setting of “Unorthodox” was sharp and captivating, “Transatlantic” lacks the same sense of urgency and precision.

The visually stunning series opens in France’s Southern port city of Marseille in 1940, the final days before the Nazi’s occupation. At the time, the United States was still clinging to its neutrality, turning a blind eye to what would later turn into the Second World War and Hitler’s rampant atrocities. Varian (Cory Michael Smith) and Mary Jayne (Gillian Jacobs) decide that ambivalence isn’t an option. Forming the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC) — later called the International Rescue Committee, Fry uses dwindling resources, the Hôtel Splendide and later the Villa Air-Bel, false documents, and Gold’s trust fund to try to get as many Jewish refugees out of Europe as possible. Among these people are writer Walter Mehring (Jonas Nay), artist Max Ernst (Alexander Fehling) and philosopher Walter Benjamin (Moritz Bleibtreu). However, corruption, greed and a general lack of humanity make it increasingly difficult for the ERC to operate.

Despite what they were up against amid the armistice agreement that obligated France to turn over all those listed on Gestapo’s Most Wanted List, Fry and Gold beat back at fascism through their makeshift missions, including one rather brilliant one involving Gold’s beloved dog, Dagobert — and even working with the British government (which was an act of treason).

With an international cast speaking English, German and French, Winger and her collaborators present a lush setting moments before the horrors of the war infest it. One of the more brilliant aspects of the series is its ability to showcase Marseille on the verge: Refugees lay stranded on the beaches while people sip coffee at cafes and revel in their antisemitism and racism.

But “Transatlantic” falters because it’s too broad. Instead of focusing solely on Gold and Fry’s work and their volunteers, including Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav), the series also touches on covert love affairs, moments of quid-pro-quo and bold schemes. Yet these moments of levity sprinkled throughout the series shift “Transatlantic’s” tone out of its focus. Gold’s entanglement with the bigoted American consul general in Marseille, Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll), and later her love affair with German refugee Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander), make her seem naive and flighty — despite the genuine risks she takes with her life.

Squeezing one year of Fry and Gold’s work into seven episodes was already challenging, especially considering everything they accomplished. They had saved upward of 2000 people by the time they were forced out of France. However, had “Transatlantic” chopped one or two episodes, it would have made for a more engaging and compelling series. While the moments of Gold using her feminine wiles to smuggle British Prisoners of War out of jail and a shootout to free one of the ERC’s most pivotal volunteers make for dramatic fodder, an episode mostly centering Ernst’s surrealist birthday celebration feels like filler in a show literally about life and death.

Fry and Gold fled France in August 1941, mere months before the attack on Pearl Harbor would force the U.S. into the war. Despite their heroic actions, neither was celebrated or recognized during their lives. While “Transatlantic” in some ways pays reverence to their contributions, its overly expansive cast and storylines create a lack of intimacy. A more centralized focus on the major players would have made the series more intricate and profound. Instead, as words like “aliens” and “undesirables” swirl around in the episodes, with minorities and people of color shouldering the weight of humanity, “Transatlantic” becomes a near-blanket parallel to what’s happening across the globe today. Instead of an engaging historical drama, it feels like a futile warning of what’s to come.

All seven episodes of “Transatlantic” drop on Netflix on April 7. Disclosure: Aramide Tinubu formerly worked at Netflix’s Tudum.