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    Saturday, September 30, 2023

    Review: ‘The Changeling’ on Apple TV+ is a wondrous parenthood saga with witches, curses and LaKeith Stanfield

    At its best — the first two-thirds cast enough of a spell to render the wait-what? final third pretty frustrating — ”The Changeling” does more than merely depict the sleeplessness and no-exit despair of so much postpartum depression. No, this one goes further. Apple TV+’s eight-part adaptation of the 2017 Victor LaValle fairy tale actually feels like it’s had some sleepless nights itself.

    I liked it, a lot, until I didn’t. But some things are worth eventual disappointment. Series creator and co-screenwriter Kelly Marcel has taken on a nervy project, creating a densely interwoven world of dark forces populated by humans, fairies, witches, curses and everyday nightmares.

    Not all of LaValle’s story has made it into the adaptation, which plainly hopes to be a two-season affair. Its chances of a second season? Well, who knows. As the series itself contends, anything’s possible.

    The star is LaKeith Stanfield, who also executive-produced. He plays Apollo, a rare-books dealer raised from age 4 by his mother Lillian (Adina Porter, with Alexis Louder taking the younger version). Apollo’s father ditched the family suddenly one day, or so Apollo has been told. The courtship between Apollo and his future wife, librarian Emmy (Clark Backo), feels like the best kind of fate, with a healthy child in the wings.

    Getting there, however, means trouble. In remote Brazil, on her own, Emmy was told by a sorceress she can make three wishes and they’ll come true, as long as the blood-red string the witch ties around Emma’s wrist is not deliberately cut. Apollo, back in New York on a date with Emma, cuts it, pretending he’s the almighty god, Apollo. From there “The Changeling” starts piling up the ramifications.

    Their baby Brian, named after Apollo’s policeman father, is difficulty incarnate. He doesn’t sleep, doesn’t breastfeed and doesn’t seem like he’s truly Emmy’s baby, at least from her exhausted perspective. “The Changeling” slides into a maze of flashbacks to Apollo’s parents’ lives; to Emmy’s time in Brazil; and in and out of bits of painful reality as lived by countless working parents and immigrants, but particularly Lillian and Emmy, navigating the storms of a forbidding new world.

    Apollo suffers a great deal here, as Episode 3 — with Emma now over the edge — reveals. He’s not a routinely heroic protagonist, but the story, both in novel form and in these eight parts, is less about heroes and foes and freight-train velocity, and more about “Underground Railroad” mystery. (Though, to be sure, Barry Jenkins’ masterly Amazon Prime series is a considerably greater achievement). This one, borrowing from the Greeks, Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and plenty more, takes its time. It’s all about the planting; a hint is dropped and then, three or four episodes later, we get the story behind it.

    There’s a consistent elegance of visual form at work here, thanks to the primary director, Jonathan van Tulleken, a trio of shrewdly compatible cinematographers, composer Dan Deacon’s eerie flourishes and other design and production elements. Stanfield’s terrific; always is, actually. Backo’s alternately yearning, desperate and haunted Emmy drives the material, at least when her character is allowed to claim the driver’s seat.

    So much goes on here, back in time or in various present tenses. Episode 1 starts with an early 19th century Norwegian ship on a stormy Atlantic voyage to America, while much of the later material takes place in or on real New York locations, from the notorious Times Square flophouse Elk Hotel (scene of Lillian’s lowest point, and most painful memory) to South Brother Island, not far from Manhattan. Here it’s a variation on Themyscira of ancient Greece or “Wonder Woman” territory. Jane Kaczmarek takes a major role in those later episodes, engagingly, though the storytelling grows more tangled and opaque in the closing laps. The final third leans extra-hard on authorial voice-overs.

    I’m sure others could give you a straighter account of “The Changeling,” or a clearer up-or-down thumb. Actually, I don’t; I don’t wish that. Wildly mixed results defy easy assessment. In this case, you won’t necessarily know where you were going even after you get there. So basically it’s like real life, fairies and curses optional.

    ———

    'THE CHANGELING'

    3 stars (out of 4)

    Rating: TV-MA (violence, language)

    How to watch: Apple TV+

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