New London is something like a shiny, futuristic shopping mall, complete with a promise of total happiness. A stress-free existence is guaranteed as long as citizens abide by three rules: No family, No monogamy and No privacy.
This is the reimagined adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s vision of a Brave New World, where conformity is achieved not by force but seductively by a system of genetic engineering that produces a caste system to ensure everyone happily knows their place, whether elite Alpha or worker drone Epsilon.
The first Peacock Original Series to premiere exclusively on Stan, Brave New World is part of a newly announced landmark deal with NBCUniversal. There’s no delayed gratification here, as all nine episodes will be available at once.
It’s a very smart production created by Grant Morrison and David Taylor, the team who helm the TV series Happy!, along with David Wiener (Flesh and Bone). The series takes all the main premises of the book, but it updates and infuses them with more humour and character depth than Huxley’s story, as he wrote it in 1932.
Apart from the update and clear plotlines through the episodes, the strength of the series is in its casting of a range of American, English and Australian actors, who fully commit to inhabiting their various roles under five different directors, kicking off with Owen Harris (Black Mirror). Peacock haven’t stinted on writers either. Morrison worked with a bunch of them across different episodes while Nina Braddock (Berlin Station) was a constant throughout.
Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones) always gives us a fantastic range that can veer from sweet to sinister, nerdy to charismatic. He plays Alpha Plus Bernard as smug, conflicted, cowardly and sinister by turns, far more nuanced than the cold, black and white character of the book. It’s Bernard’s job to dispense liberal doses of the drug Soma that keeps everyone in a state of subjugated happiness.
Jessica Brown Findlay is a revelation as the main protagonist, Lenina Crowne. Best known for her turn as the wayward Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, she plays Lenina as a voluptuous innocent, a perfect product of her hedonistic society, who goes on a journey of awakening that beautifully contextualises the social themes underpinning the story.
At the outset, we learn that in New London ‘everyone belongs to everyone else’, so Lenina’s four month affair with Alpha Henry (Australian actor Sen Mitsuji, Altered Carbon) is seen as an aberration. She is shifted back on track with the help of Soma and a colourfully staged orgy that is a regular happening in a society based on the edict ‘everyone belongs to everyone else.’
Cracks begin to show when Lenina and Bernard pair up to take a trip to the Savage Lands, a theme park on the lines of a living museum where New Londoners can gape at the primitive life of the old order, complete with customs like monogamy that lead to destructive possessiveness and jealousy. In the less PC climate of the 1930s, Huxley set his theme park in an Indian reservation. The 2020 reimagining thankfully moves on from that and actually has a lot of fun with the concepts, like a House of Monogamy complete with actors playing a chapel crowd, a shotgun bride and a jealous ex.
Through a shock turn of events, Savage John (Alden Ehrenreich of the Han Solo prequel and the Coens’ Hail, Caesar) ends up returning to New London with the by-now traumatised Bernard and Lenina. He’s aided by his mother, played to spooky trailer trash perfection by Demi Moore, who has her own agenda.
It’s Savage John’s assimilation in New London and Bernard and Lenina’s varying responses to the shock of seeing life beyond utopia that drives the rest of the episodes.
At the time Huxley wrote Brave New World, he was deeply affected by a visit to the United States, where he found the mass consumerism, herd mentality and general vulgarity almost frightening. Even he couldn’t have imagined the lack of privacy engendered by social media. He also couldn’t have foreseen the current push towards gender equity, but it’s twenty first century tropes like these that the Showrunners have taken into account. The ruler of this Brave New World and the emotional engineer of it, both male characters in the book, are played by women of colour in the updated show.
English actor Nina Sosanya (Killing Eve) is a complex and sophisticated Mustafa Mond while Hannah John-Kamen (Ready Player One) is engineer ‘Helm’.
It’s worth noting that the show hired intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien who, with Normal People, set something of a benchmark for safe filming of sex scenes that could allow actors to explore much wider emotional context than just banging bodies. Findlay’s performance, in particular, brings depth and nuance to her character’s evolving sexual encounters.
While the book had an air of doom-laden finality about it, the series has tried to be more open ended. The characters are less one-dimensional figures, created to play out a point of view, like evolving human beings. One can see why good actors were happy to pick up the script, as the series has a good go at taking us on a journey with people we can identify with, however extreme their world, while provoking thoughts about freedom and control.
Brave New World premieres Friday, 16 October only on Stan – with all episodes available at once