The Sandman review: New dreams, new nightmares, a new triumph for Netflix

Cameron Frew
Tom Sturridge as The Sandman and Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer
Netflix

Tonight, The Sandman fans can sleep in peace, for Netflix has delivered an extraordinary adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s seminal comic book; it’s a dream come true.

Out of darkness, comes the boom of a baritone voice: “It begins… in the waking world, which humanity insists on calling the real world, as if your dreams have no effect upon the choices you make. There’s another life which awaits you when you close your eyes, and enter my realm.”

You’ll soon become acquainted with the purring cadence of Morpheus, also known as the Lord of Dreams, and the titular Sandman. Mankind’s dreams, nightmares, and every reverie in-between are at his behest, controlling the fears and fantasies of the wanting and weary from the realm of the Dreaming, “lest they consume and destroy you.”

When your head rests upon your pillow, uncertain of the joy, terror, or nonsense that awaits you, Morpheus will be the architect of your slumberous thoughts. These ideas aren’t just the core of The Sandman – they’re clearly, deftly informed from the outset, a testament to the Netflix show’s impressive handling of lofty lore.

The Sandman starts with a lost Dream in a cruel world

The naivety of Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) is his initial undoing: against the advice of Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), the head librarian of the Dreaming, he tries to recapture the The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a living nightmare with teeth for eyes, loose in the waking world.

Suddenly, he’s transported to a mansion in 1916 England, summoned by the black magic of “Magus” (Charles Dance). He wanted the angel of Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), and instead, he got Dream. He doesn’t let him go – he imprisons him, stealing his helm, ruby, and sand until he grants his wish: the return of his dead son, lost during the First World War.

This is the tip of the iceberg, preceding the likes of John Dee (David Thewlis), a mysterious stranger chasing the ruby; Rose (Vanesu Samunyai), a young woman connected to the Dreaming in ways she doesn’t yet know; Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), a modern-day exorcist-for-hire; and Lucifer herself (Gwendoline Christie), presiding over the ghoulish cauldron of Hell.

The Sandman is worth the long wait

Developed between Gaiman, David S. Goyer, and Allan Heinberg, The Sandman is a grand defiance of the naysayers who thought it unadaptable. As someone with minimal knowledge of the source material, every episode was as comprehensive as the last, furthering the mythology without pandering to ignorance or indulging in deep-cut spiels.

Its strongest chapters are the fifth and sixth: the former is essentially an episode of The Twilight Zone, initially feeling like a detour before its thematic, grisly depth becomes bracingly apparent. The sixth is a remarkable shift in tone, exploring the compassion of Death in an odyssey of immortality.

A still from The Sandman Season 1
Netflix
The Sandman is fantastical and profound.

This is when The Sandman is best: when it toes the line between cosmic fantasy, the delirium of dreaming, and capturing the essence of a parable. After all, Morpheus is one of seven Endless, the offspring of Night and Time: Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire, Despair, Destruction, and Delirium – does that not sound like the beginning of a short story, if not a “walks into a bar” joke?

The Sandman is compellingly human. Even with otherworldly vistas, gut-churning violence – you see people rip themselves inside out – and a plot that always keeps you guessing, it’s never better than watching two men, a god to a mortal, better understanding our will to live.

Death is the highlight of The Sandman’s impeccable cast

Sturridge is phenomenal in the lead role; imposing, but always wearing a smirk atop his chalky guise, with the commanding cadence to overpower his co-stars. Christie makes for a fabulous sparring partner; if Sturridge has the scene presence of gothic ghost, she brings a delicate, no-less potent dread with every word, like everyone is teetering on an edge they can’t see.

Nobody is at fault: Stephen Fry is wonderful as a cane-wielding bookworm; Mason Alexander Park’s brief appearances as Desire steam with erotic energy; Thewlis hones his knife-edge charm; and Patton Oswalt provides some sweary comic relief as Matthew the Raven, with lines such as, “F**k it, let’s go to Hell!”

A still from The Sandman Season 1
Netflix
Kirby Howell-Baptiste is incredible in The Sandman.

We can only hope to meet an angel as tender and naturally likable as Howell-Baptiste when we pass. Her performance as Death, particularly to those unfamiliar with the character, will surprise you; don’t picture the reaper holding a massive scythe. With a gentle step, a winning smile, and indefinable charisma you can’t buy, her episode – nay, the show – orbits around her talent.

Ropey CGI is a small grievance in The Sandman’s splendor

This should be caveated with review copies being a “work in progress,” so improvements may have been made. Nevertheless, moments of visual oomph – bodies splattering, cyclones of sand, vignette creeping in the corners, and a slight haziness carrying that sleepy mix of anxiety and elation – are almost undone by cheap green screen. One hopes the giant hand scene is looking in better shape now.

Even then, there are exceptions. This is the best vision of Hell since The House that Jack Built: damned corpses croak from the trees, whimpering into lifeless fog; demons of all shapes and sizes, chanting and fighting. From the landscape shots to its admirably practical sets, it has all the atmospheric, ashy beauty of a Dark Souls game; baroque architecture under flaming clouds, dying to be explored.

Is Netflix’s The Sandman good?

Its journey to the screen has taken eons, but The Sandman deserves to amass a legion of obsessives. This is smart, adult, emotive storytelling within a world of (un)imaginable scale. It would be a nightmare if Netflix doesn’t allow this dream to endure.

The Sandman is available to stream on Netflix now.

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