Despite the recent success of Game Of Thrones, much of the realm of fantasy is still considered a young person’s genre, relegated to the margins of serious drama and found in the YA section of your local bookstore. And even when it is given the full berth of “serious drama” consideration, be it the aforementioned HBO series or things like Starz’s Outlander, the only reason is because it partakes of supposedly adult-minded things like nudity, sex, and graphic violence. (Never mind the obvious inference that kids tend to be far more eager to indulge in those subjects at any given moment.) Horror like The Walking Dead may rule television, and science fiction may have been accepted as legitimate adult fare since before Kubrick lensed the first frame of 2001, but mysticism and magic still somehow find themselves in the less reputable seat more often than not, regardless of how many books China Miéville publishes or examples of full-frontal nudity populate Westeros.
Beyond The Walls is the rare example of full-fledged television fantasy that wows its audience purely on the merits of smart, sophisticated storytelling. With hardly a naked form or intimate encounter in sight (the fleeting instances of both are so tame as to be incidental), the new three-part miniseries delves into the world of the supernatural with inventive flair and sharp-edged narrative. It asks audiences to enter a darkened underground world of ethereal mystery without so much as the promise of a titillating encounter or gruesome pitfall. It may share little in common, storywise, with French series The Returned, but the two make for fair points of comparison, both delivering high-minded and enthralling drama out of pulpy material. Whereas that critically acclaimed show did the work of a grounded drama steeped in the unbelievable, Beyond The Walls plunges fully into a dreamlike universe of the fantastical, more a two-hour-plus fable steeped in magical realism than The Night Of with ghosts added.
The miniseries is a superlative example of open-ended and imaginative storytelling that nonetheless moves at an efficient and captivating pace, somehow managing to feel both fleet and exploratory at once. The story centers around Lisa (Veerle Baetens, best known in the States for her terrific turn in The Broken Circle Breakdown), a buttoned-up and emotionally cut off woman working as a speech therapist in France. We know she’s got issues, because she’s invented a fake controlling husband as a means of keeping herself isolated from her co-workers. In reality, she comes home to a spare, barely furnished apartment, eats a sad premade meal, and works at her computer until bed. When she sleeps, she has stress dreams of standing in water and wakes up covered in sweat, sometimes even needing to change the sheets for other reasons. One day, she’s informed a house across the street was found with an old man dead in a chair, the body undiscovered for 30 years. More surprisingly, she’s been left the house in his will—but she’s never even heard of him, let alone had any interactions.
From there, the story accelerates into mystery. After moving her meager possessions across the street, she hears noises in the walls and decides to investigate. Without giving too much away, Lisa is plunged into a strange world bereft of the rules governing our reality, one where terrifying (human?) beings silently stalk her, and where it’s unclear who is real and who is a manifestation of this supernatural place. Few stories earn the descriptive “haunting” the way Beyond The Walls does, but that term aptly captures the poetic beauty of the universe in which Lisa finds herself. Her explorations take on the structure of a dream, with strange goings-on that seem to symbolize… something? Though what, you’re never quite sure. Is the whole experience a manifestation of the troubled psyche of a fragile young woman? It would explain the hallucinatory state of emotional upheaval, though it can’t account for the way she can fall asleep, if she’s sleeping already.
The set design and production are as much the star of this limited series as Baetens; even when there’s no one in sight, the show is gorgeous. Dilapidated old Victorian rooms, lit by candlelight, evoke a gothic tone, with the color palette and retro furnishings summoning up a ghostly bygone era. Even a late-in-the-series plunge into sun-dappled forest and natural splendor doesn’t remove the gauzy, funereal air hanging over the proceedings. (And a brief role from Geraldine Chaplin, as the world’s most obviously hiding-a-secret woman in history, doubles down on maintaining the creepy vibe.) The whole thing unfolds with a sense of wonder, pulling off the rare feat of keeping viewers on the edge of their seat even as almost nothing is explained or given a backstory. There’s a subtext about the importance of not holding on to guilt and coming to terms with the past, but it’s never belabored. Like a mature and restrained Labyrinth, transposed onto adult themes and issues, Beyond The Walls brings fantasy and fear together in a lush and elaborate package.
This is the first series acquired for American distribution by the horror-based streaming service Shudder, and it provides an excellent reason for those on the fence to pony up the five dollar subscription fee, besides the already excellent curated catalog of cinematic offerings. Halloween always brings a glut of subpar film and television trying to capitalize on people’s hunger for seasonally appropriate scares; Beyond The Walls hardly spills an ounce of blood or wallows in a single gruesome image, yet it lingers in the mind long past many more extreme offerings. It’s horror for people who don’t usually tolerate such fare, and fantasy that offers up a rich and rewarding world.