The Sandman review: Netflix’s Neil Gaiman series is atmospheric and evocative, but could’ve dreamed bigger

Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s comic The Sandman stars Tom Sturridge as Dream of the Endless - but is the series itself the stuff of nightmares?

Sometimes, Tom Sturridge seems as though he might have been plucked straight from a dream himself. He’s striking to look at, with his sharp cheekbones and a dark, brooding look on his face; he speaks in a deep, gravelly whisper, with an imperious tone as befits the King of Dreams. Sturridge is a relative unknown – certainly he brings less baggage to the role than The Sandman’s erstwhile director/star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who left an earlier iteration of the project after creative differences – but he feels familiar, in a way. If he was carved from the imagination, it’s a tumblr-inflected vision of the exact midpoint between Benedict Cumberbatch, Matt Smith, and Colin Morgan.

It’s a strong performance, undoubtedly, and even as it’s plainly a difficult one to achieve Sturridge makes it look effortless. Sturridge pitches Dream – one of seven all-powerful siblings, each an anthropomorphic representation of a different abstract concept – almost as an aristocrat humbled for the first time, a lifetime of influence tempered by new uncertainty. Dream is austere and imposing, positioned at some remove from the audience for most of The Sandman; there’s a kind of inscrutable curiosity to Sturridge’s gaze, always seemingly laser-focused on something even as it’s rarely obvious what he’s thinking, or even what he’s looking at. A warmth bleeds in, eventually, but for much of the Netflix series Dream proves an intriguingly difficult protagonist.

Sometimes, though, there’s a sense that Dream himself is The Sandman’s least interesting character. The Sandman is structured as something of a travelogue: it opens with an occult ritual to capture Death, albeit one that goes wrong and traps Dream instead. Trapped for decades at the mercy of a necromancer, on his eventual escape Dream is weakened and confused, deprived of the totems that lend him his power. Those opening episodes chart Dream’s efforts to retrieve his helmet, his ruby, and his pouch of sand – a complex quest that takes him from the depths of hell to darkest London, and brings him face to face with devils and exorcists, conmen and tricksters, the fabled and the lost.

The Sandman quickly takes on something of an anthology-like structure, with Dream himself less of a protagonist – and certainly not a superhero, despite his comic book origins alongside Batman and the Martian Manhunter – but closer to a narrator, almost the Rod Serling to the twilight zone inside Neil Gaiman’s head. The series is quite willing to take detours and get sidetracked, often finding itself more interested in the lives of its side characters than its eponymous-if-only-nominal lead. It’s easy to appreciate that instinct, not least because it freed up the production to cast overqualified actors in low-obligation supporting roles, but because it lets the series encompass a wider range of tones and [ideas] than it might have otherwise.

Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine and Tom Sturridge as Dream. They’re stood close, illuminated in the dark by blurry streetlights (Credit: Liam Daniel/Netflix)

That has its drawbacks, sometimes. As noted, Dream can feel like The Sandman’s least interesting character; while he’s more often than not a way into more interesting worlds, at times the series veers away from that, and Dream feels less like a conduit and more like an obstacle. You’ll wish that the camera would follow another character when Dream slips out of a scene, that the series might indulge its inclination to wander just that little bit more. (Or, put another way, whenever Jenna Coleman is offscreen, all other characters should ask “where is Jenna Coleman?”) Occasionally, too, the series misjudges its tonal swings, with some comic elements sitting a little awkwardly – Patton Oswalt’s self-aware raven feels he got lost on the way to a Marvel movie, an awkward sidekick always at odds with the austere high fantasy that characterises the series otherwise.

Certainly, it’s notable that, of the six episodes provided to critics, the best two restrict Sturridge (and, thankfully, Oswalt) to more minor supporting roles. The fifth episode sees John Dee (David Thewlis), new owner of Dream’s ruby, manipulate the patrons of a 24-hour diner; the sixth sees Dream accompany his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) as she visits the dying, then recounts the story of how Dream met Hob Gadling (Ferdinand Kingsley), perhaps the closest thing to a friend he has. It’s not that the opening episodes are manifestly weaker, exactly, but where they struggle to articulate the significance of dreams and storytelling, the intense variety of that later short story-esque approach comes closer to embodying The Sandman’s full potential.

What each episode has in common, at least, is that they all belong to quite a handsome show, evocative and atmospheric to the point of indulgence: it’s clear that Netflix and Warner Bros have thrown money at The Sandman, and it’s clear too that it was money well spent. The Sandman is full of memorable, striking imagery, from its vast CGI dreamscapes to more tactile bits of set design, like Dream’s gas-mask-by-way-of-HR-Giger-style helmet. At times, admittedly, it’s easy to wish the show had been a little more visually experimental – breaking from straightforward realism, finding more abstract ways to express things, or at least holding to a less consistent house style episode to episode – as would surely befit a show about dreams, or indeed a comic often praised for doing much the same.

But it is, ultimately, always a very well-made show, and indeed a consistently entertaining one too. You might even say, perhaps, that Sandman is exactly the stuff that dreams are made of – even if sometimes you’ll hope it had dreamed just that little bit bigger.

The Sandman is available to stream on Netflix now; I watched 6 of a total 10 episodes before writing this review. You can find more of our TV reviews here.