Earnest, professional, but melodramatic and uneven, Transatlantic initially felt second rate: a workmanlike group biopic about resistance fighters in occupied Vichy France during World War II. Eventually I came to appreciate it, though; it’s a unique exploration of its niche, with old-school Hollywood stylings and a whimsical style.
Set in and around Marseilles in 1941, the limited series traces the efforts of the Emergency Rescue Committee, an American humanitarian group charged with helping refugees flee the Nazi regime after the fall of France. Heading up the group is Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith), a closeted homosexual subsuming his personal demons by helping Jewish artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals escape to the United States. He’s abetted by Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), the black-sheep heiress of a wealthy Chicago family, determined to channel her money and privilege into helping refugees. As the Vichy authorities, increasingly pressured by the Nazis, continue to threaten their work, the group finds a new base of operations in a rural chateau owned by Varian’s secret lover Thomas (Amit Rahav). There, they’re joined by Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander), a fleeing German Jew who takes a shine to Mary Jayne. This group, along with Jewish resistance fighter Lisa Fittko (Deleila Piasko) and former French African soldier Paul Kandjo (Ralph Amoussou), becomes the core of an international resistance cell using every means necessary—from navigating Vichy bureaucracy to executing jail breaks—to help the victims of Nazi persecution. Unfortunately, the local American consul Graham Patterson (Corey Stoll) is a scheming collaborator, hoping German victory will pave the way for American commerce in Europe.
Suffering from a scattered opening and erratic tone, Transatlantic takes time to warm up to, both its historical details and roster of heroes fairly familiar. Jacobs is a possible exception; although punching above her weight in such a deadly serious role, she brings a certain verve to the proceedings. Stoll does too, delivering oily villainy, while the rest of the cast is quite good, with Englander, Piasko, and Rahav making the deepest impressions. Co-creator Anna Winger knows how to handle spy genre tropes from her work on the Deutschland series, and while Transatlantic doesn’t always feel emotionally genuine, the geopolitical and period spycraft details feel legitimate. Neither the derring do nor the weave of romances deliver anything too unexpected, but it’s a refreshingly colorful approach to such dark subject matter, and there’s a certain interest in the parade of historical figures that benefit from the group’s efforts. Definitely not a whole-hearted recommendation on this one, but there’s certainly enough to like to make it worth a watch—including an unusual, inventive outro credit sequence that cleverly pivots the show’s tonal resonance, depending on the shifting musical accompaniment.