Piecing together crucial historical events in a limited series to craft a captivating narrative is a challenging endeavor. However, Anna Winger, the creator and writer, is experienced in this field. Her adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s autobiography, “Unorthodox,” in 2020 received critical acclaim for portraying the journey of a Jewish woman breaking free from her Hasidic community. Winger’s latest series, “Transatlantic,” based on Julie Orringer’s novel “The Flight Portfolio,” once again focuses on real-life figures fighting against oppression. Varian Fry, a literary journalist, and Mary Jayne Gold, an American heiress, played instrumental roles in helping Jewish writers and artists escape France during the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1941. However, while “Unorthodox” presented a sharp and captivating personal journey to freedom, “Transatlantic” lacks the same urgency and precision.
The visually stunning series begins in Marseille, France’s Southern port city, in 1940, during the final days before the Nazi occupation. At that time, the United States maintained its neutrality, disregarding the impending Second World War and Hitler’s atrocities. Varian (portrayed by Cory Michael Smith) and Mary Jayne (played by Gillian Jacobs) refuse to remain indifferent. They establish the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), later known as the International Rescue Committee. With limited resources, they utilize the Hôtel Splendide and later the Villa Air-Bel, false documents, and Gold’s trust fund to facilitate the escape of as many Jewish refugees from Europe as possible. Notable individuals aided by the ERC include writer Walter Mehring (Jonas Nay), artist Max Ernst (Alexander Fehling), and philosopher Walter Benjamin (Moritz Bleibtreu). However, corruption, greed, and a lack of humanity complicate the ERC’s operations.
Despite the challenges they face, including the armistice agreement requiring France to surrender individuals listed on the Gestapo’s Most Wanted List, Fry and Gold combat fascism through their daring missions, such as an ingenious plan involving Gold’s cherished dog, Dagobert. They even collaborate with the British government, an act considered treasonous. The series presents a visually stunning portrayal of Marseille on the brink of destruction, capturing the contrast between stranded refugees on the beaches and locals enjoying coffee in cafes, oblivious to their own antisemitism and racism.
However, “Transatlantic” falls short due to its broad scope. Instead of solely focusing on Gold, Fry, and their dedicated volunteers, including Thomas Lovegrove (Amit Rahav), the series delves into covert love affairs, quid-pro-quo moments, and audacious schemes. While these moments of levity add variety, they distract from the series’ main focus. Gold’s entanglement with the bigoted American consul general, Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll), and her subsequent love affair with German refugee Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander), portray her as naive and flighty, despite her genuine willingness to risk her life.
Condensing Fry and Gold’s year-long efforts into seven episodes was already a challenge, given their remarkable achievements of saving over 2,000 people before their departure from France. Trimming one or two episodes would have resulted in a more engaging and compelling series. While dramatic scenes such as Gold employing her feminine charm to smuggle British prisoners of war and a shootout to free a crucial ERC volunteer provide gripping moments, an episode primarily centered around Ernst’s surrealist birthday celebration feels like filler in a show focused on matters of life and death.
In August 1941, Fry and Gold fled France, just months before the attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the U.S. into the war. Despite their heroic actions, they received no recognition or celebration during their lives. While “Transatlantic” pays some tribute to their contributions, its expansive cast and multiple storylines diminish the sense of intimacy. A more focused approach, highlighting the major players, would have made the series more profound and intricate. Instead, as episodes depict words like “aliens” and “undesirables” swirling around, with minorities and people of color bearing the burden of humanity, “Transatlantic” becomes a broad parallel to the global events of today. Rather than being an engaging historical drama, it feels like a futile warning of what lies ahead.