Station Eleven review – a beautiful vision of a plague-ravaged planet – The Guardian

What would make life still worth living after the collapse of civilisation? This adaptation of the astonishingly prescient 2014 bestseller is deeply unsettling, even in the bits it gets wrong
How deeply strange it is, how deeply unsettling, to be able to compare and contrast a fictional pandemic with the real thing. I read Emily St John Mandel’s bestselling Station Eleven shortly after it came out in 2014, when the tale of a mysterious flu sweeping the globe and laying waste to normal life lay wholly beyond the bounds of reality. Now the television adaptation by Patrick Somerville (known for Maniac and The Leftovers) for HBO, streaming in the UK on Starzplay, is here and … resonating.
Or at least part of it is. There are – as is starting to feel mandatory with small-screen dramas – two timelines. The first concerns the early days and years of the pandemic. Different episodes concentrate on the experiences of different characters, but the through line is young Kirsten (an absolutely extraordinary performance from 13-year-old Matilda Lawler in her first substantial role), a child actor who is abandoned by her chaperone when a stage performance of King Lear is chaotically truncated by the death of the lead, Arthur (Gael García Bernal).

Audience member Jeevan (Himesh Patel) tries to take her home, but they are overtaken by the collapse of civilisation and begin their new life navigating the disaster together. Though “their” plague is much more devastating than ours (it has a 99% fatality rate), it is still quite something to see people coughing in enclosed spaces while those nearby bristle, and others wonder about masks or gather supplies so they can hunker in apartments until the virus has burned itself out. People die alone, with their loved ones unable to be with them, and people grieve alone.
It is almost more discomfiting, however, to be able to point now to moments the creators get wrong. In the very early days, for example, Jeevan and Kirsten go round a supermarket that is full of produce but empty of people. Ah, you say – no. It wasn’t like that.
The second timeline takes us 20 years in the future, when Kirsten (now played by Mackenzie Davis) is part of a troupe of actors known as the Traveling Symphony, who tour the midwest putting on Shakespeare plays – Hamlet, when we meet them – to the scattered plague survivors. Even in 2014, I was sceptical that there would be such an appetite. Now I am more so, but beyond the practical, the questions posed by the book and the show about how much of a refuge art can provide, what we should work to preserve, what makes a civilisation and what, ultimately, makes life worth living, remain interesting ones.
Station Eleven is a slow burn. The first few episodes look beautiful but move at a stately pace. If you can stick with it, you will be rewarded. Having established its Serious Credentials, it gains confidence and begins to move away from the elegiac tone that threatens to overwhelm it. Backstories are filled in – notably of Miranda (Danielle Deadwyler), Arthur’s lover and the author of the graphic novel (called Station Eleven, but don’t let the meta-ness put you off) that has been Kirsten’s lifeline over her 20 years of post-apocalyptic wandering. Lighter moments leaven the darkness, particularly when the irreducibly charismatic and off-kilter Lori Petty, as the troupe’s composer Sarah, is on screen, or when we flash back to pre-pandemic times. “You seem to get reborn almost every time you leave the house,” says Arthur’s best friend, Clark (David Wilmot, another mesmerising turn), after listening to a California female actor be an excessively California female actor over dinner for too long.
Villainry arrives (via the most frightening performance I’ve ever seen, from Daniel Zovatto as the stranger who insists on joining the Traveling Symphony “otherwise your friends are going to start to disappear”), along with the secret community known as the Museum of Civilisation. Further threads arise from the stories of other settlements – one led by Clark and the female actor (Elizabeth, played by Caitlin FitzGerald, who ended up marrying Arthur after an affair they began while he was with Miranda) – and begin to be woven together. We start to plumb the depths of Kirsten’s soul, forged by suffering, saved by the Symphony and ready to save it, too, by any means necessary. We begin, really, to care, to wonder, to ask more questions. To take refuge in the art, dammit.