By Michele Calderon
This review may contain spoilers.
Released on Netflix on March 3, 2022 Midnight at the Pera Palace (Pera Palas’ta Gece Yarisi) is an engaging series in eight episodes, that is loosely based on a 2015 non-fiction book by Charles King: Midnight at the Pera Palace – the birth of Modern Istanbul. While the book focuses, through extensive research, on the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into modern-day Turkey against the backdrop of one of Istanbul’s most celebrated landmarks, the Netflix Original Series is many things all at once:
- A time travel fiction fantasy which takes us from modern day Istanbul into the early 20th century, in the period immediately following World War I.
- A murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, the British author who had famously stayed at Pera Palace while writing her novel Murder on the Orient Express. Christie is a favorite of the series heroine Esra.
- A fictionalized recounting of historical events involving Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the British occupation of Istanbul.
- A love story between characters from two different centuries!
Young Istanbul reporter Esra (Hazal Kaya) is sent by her editor on an assignment to write a piece entitled “130 reasons to spend a night at the Pera Palace”, the famed Istanbul landmark which is celebrating its 130th anniversary. Shortly after arriving at the hotel, Esra becomes fast friends with the hotel manager Ahmet (Tansu Biçer), who takes her under his wing, pointing out historical mementoes in the famous room no. 411 where Agatha Christie once stayed. Esra later finds a mysterious key which, at the stroke of midnight (hence the series title), allows her to travel back in time to 1919 Istanbul. In that turbulent, and ultimately transformative era, the Pera Palace hosted many famous personalities such as English writer Agatha Christie and Mustafa Kemal, leader of the resistance to the British occupation who would, in 1923, become the first President of an independent Turkey.
She also encounters Peride, a beautiful and mysterious woman, daughter of a prominent Istanbul family, who happens to be Esra’s exact likeness and whom Esra will later be impersonating when she and Ahmet discover that Peride has been murdered. Esra takes on Peride’s identity in order to stop a plot by the British occupants to assassinate General Mustafa Kemal. Along the way she meets, and much later falls in love with, Halit (Selahattin Paşalı) – a young man who initially appears to be a pawn of the British military, but is later revealed as an undercover agent and staunch supporter of Mustafa Kemal’s bid to take back the country from its occupants.
Halit and Esra will together overcome many obstacles to foil the murderous plot against the Turkish leader.
Did I enjoy Midnight at the Pera Palace ?…I most definitely did.
I wasn’t sure at first, because the time travel genre has never been one of my favorites. The first two episodes did not immediately draw me in as I usually favor more serious drama with extensive character development. Throughout the series, Midnight at Pera Palace does not really deliver on this aspect of a production. Though it contains dramatic, even tragic, incidents it is an action-filled, fantasy caper that is both engaging and relaxing to watch. Yet it is far from a superficial fluff piece.
The series starts off slowly but picks up the pace as it later unfolds at an almost dizzying speed with multiple discoveries packed into the action. Through various episodes of time travel, it is revealed that Ahmet is actually the son of Halit (the 1919 character) and his mother is Sonya, an exiled Russian princess working as a maid at Pera Palace (later found to have been the one who killed Peride).
I found the constant jumping back and forth between the present time and 1919 action a bit distracting, particularly in the latter episodes. Yet a very fun part of the show is watching the interactions between the 21st century characters and the early 20th century ones, with hilarious alternative reality results.
You see Esra (as Peride) attending a dinner at Peride’s family house and thanking the servers clearing her plate, eliciting contemptuous looks from Peride’s mother and sisters. Clearly, thanking the help in public was frowned upon in wealthy Istanbul circles. Followers of Turkish history will also smile at the befuddled waiter in the Pera Palace tea room being asked by Esra: “where is Atatürk?” General Mustafa Kemal would only be given that name (meaning “Father of the Turks”) in 1934 by the Turkish parliament in recognition for his role building the country into a modern republic.
The production is really well done and I particularly loved the set design which takes great care with historical detail. The rich color palette, the intricate and beautiful costumes, particularly the exquisite jewel-toned outfits in shades of emerald, navy, and red worn by Hazal Kaya, with matching headdresses and jewelry, all accentuate the viewing experience.
The filmmakers appear to have spared no expense recreating 1919 Istanbul and the glorious receptions at the Pera Palace, as well as the Western style musical shows at the Garden Bar near Pera, featuring English-language performances and thinly clad dancers. These stand in stark contrast to the quiet, mostly poor and conservative neighborhood in Istanbul where Halit’s older brother and his family live.
As far as the acting goes, don’t watch Midnight at the Pera Palace expecting to encounter Oscar-worthy performances. Yet the acting is solid in the leading roles, well backed by a great many secondary characters.
Overall, the series has a very dynamic and authentic feel, with a constant rush of people inside and outside the hotel, courtesy of the dozens of extras filling the grand ballroom at the Pera Palace, the neighboring streets, and the harbor area where the British Navy ships can be seen.
The History behind the Show
While watching Midnight at the Pera Palace I was intrigued as to how much of the actual history of 1919 Türkiye was reflected in the story, and whether the key characters were based on real historical figures. According to research done by Turkish Professor Aydan Senoğlu (see Author’s Note) I was thrilled to discover that most of them actually were.
The British Navy did indeed occupy Istanbul in 1919 with the support of the last Ottoman Sultan Vahdettin. Paranoid about a potential invasion of Turkey by the Soviets following the brutal fate of the Romanov dynasty in Russia, Vahdettin sided with the British. He signed the treaty of Mondros on October 30, 1918, that opened the Straits to the transit of military ships from other nations. The British Navy came to Istanbul in November, 1918, and was there during the spring of 1919, the time period described in the series. Vahdettin also went along with the British plan to disband the Ottoman Army.
Mustafa Kemal, a general in the Ottoman Army who had secured the Turkish victory against the Western allies at the Battle of Gallipoli, came to Istanbul on November 15, 1918. He could see that Istanbul was practically under occupation by the British. He said to his aide “they will leave just like they came”.
Sultan Vahdettin exiled Mustafa Kemal to an assignment in Samsun in the Black Sea region. He left Istanbul on a ship (as shown in the series) on May 16, 1919. He resigned from the Ottoman Army to start the Turkish Independence War with the Turks of Anatolia.
The Characters: Did Peride, Halit, and the others really exist ?
The double role of Esra and Peride is played by Hazal Kaya, one of Turkey’s leading actresses who has been acting since her teenage years. Hazal is a polarizing actress, mostly because her most famous role at the start of her career was that of Nihal Ziyagil in the classic TV series Aşk i Memnu (Forbidden Love), a character and a performance that elicits strong dislike amongst many. I am not in that camp and was happy to see Hazal cast in the lead role in Midnight at Pera Palace, which will surely ensure her further recognition by international audiences.
The character of Peride is apparently based on Ottoman Princess Mevhibe, who was a grand-daughter of Sultan Vahdettin. She met Mustafa Kemal when he came to Istanbul and helped him obtain information about the Ottoman Sultan’s alliance with British occupiers, and the British plans for the future of the Turkish nation. Mevhibe attended a ball at the request of Mustafa Kemal, and learned that the plan was to end the presence of Turks and encourage Greeks to occupy Izmir and the rest of Anatolia (that actually happened on May 15, 1919).
Hazal’s performance seemed a bit tentative in the initial two episodes, as if the actress was merely trying out, yet not really inhabiting, the twin identities of Esra and Peride. To her credit, she quickly took charge of both characters and I ultimately saw her portrayal as skilled as well as endearing, because of her great beauty (the early 20th century fashions fit her to a T), her ease in speaking (and singing) in English in various scenes, and her increased assurance particularly in the more emotional scenes involving Halit, and the growing attachment the two feel for each other.
Hazal’s portrayal also shines in scenes involving Peride’s daughter, showing Esra’s initial discomfort with little Leyla (played by the lovely child actor Ebrar Alya Demirbilek best known for her role in Hercai), which later turns into true affection and protectiveness, particularly when the girl is kidnapped by British officer George. Hazal as Peride grabbing George by the neck in her desperation to rescue her daughter is a sight to see, as is the scene in the last episode where she deftly manipulates him to reveal his murderous intentions, so that a hidden Ahmet can video the scene with a cell phone camera. The mind is boggled watching that particular scene straddling both centuries but it’s all part of the fun of this show. The fantastical elements make it more amusing.
Halit: according to Prof. Senoğlu,the character is based on Mehmet Cambaz, a Turkish resistance leader in Istanbul that established a good relationship with British occupiers. He used that cover to mastermind operations to steal guns and ammunition from occupiers and transport them to the Turkish resistance in Anatolia.
Actor Selahattin Paşalı, with his tall dark and suave looks gives a very credible performance as Halit, slowly letting the viewer into both the outward and inward facets of the character. Halit first appears to be a supporter of the British Navy occupants, a frequent dinner and drinking companion to British officer George, who wants him to execute the plan to assassinate Mustafa Kemal.
Although Halit lives in the early 20th century, he has alternative personalities like Esra/Peride. Beyond the dashing gentlemanly appearance, you sense a troubled soul. Halit is, in fact, the son of a conservative family who is estranged from his older brother Osman, who sees him as a traitor for his friendliness with the British. Halit’s reputation in his brother’s neighborhood is such that even street kids know him as “The Foreigner”. Unable to reveal his true identity as a supporter of Mustafa Kemal, Halit suffers his family’s rejection in silence.
Ahmet: although there is no information to indicate that the Pera Palace hotel manager in 1919 was indeed named Ahmet, actor Tansu Biçer does a great job with the character, who teams up with Esra to find the truth behind Peride’s murder. Well known in Turkey and beyond for roles in celebrated series like Çukur (The Pit) and Rise of Empires – Ottoman, he deftly portrays Ahmet with a sly but affecting demeanor.
Hakan Dinçkol as Mustafa Kemal gives a mostly silent performance that relies for the most part on his tall and blue-eyed looks resembling the great leader. Watching him I could not help but wish we will one day see my favorite of all Turkish actors – Kivanç Tatlituğ – in the role of Atatürk. I feel his physical traits resembling the Leader, and his exceptional acting talent would do most justice to the part. Due to the iconic status achieved by Atatürk in the minds and hearts of his countrymen, this will be a challenge that only he and, arguably, a very small handful of Turkey’s best actors could be up to meeting.
The Pera Palace
Despite the great ensemble cast, the real star of the show is the legendary Pera Palace itself. The show is really a celebration of its former and current splendor. The historic Pera Palace Hotel of Istanbul, located in the Pera neighborhood (now called Beyoğlu), was designed by French-Turkish architect Alexandre Vallaury in the neo-classical style of the late 19th century. Its architectural traits are similar to the great buildings of the Haussmanian period in Paris and other European cities like Madrid. The hotel was built in 1882, initially to host the passengers of the Orient Express, the railway line connecting western Europe to Turkey and the rest of Asia. The grand opening ball was held at the Pera Palace in 1895.
The hotel was the first building in the whole of Turkey to be powered by electricity, other than the Ottoman Palaces, and the first building in Istanbul to be home to an electric elevator. The hotel was extensively renovated between 2008 and 2010. The “Atatürk Room” No 101 remains to date as a ‘Museum Room’, exhibiting personal items and mementoes of the leader.
Other than Agatha Christie, many well-known figures have stayed at the Pera Palace over the course of the 20th century including Sara Bernhardt, Josephine Baker, Ernest Hemingway, King Edward VIII of England, Reza Pahlavi the former Shah of Iran, and Jackie Kennedy when she was First Lady.
The hotel is also said to have been a favorite of Kurt Seyit Eminof (1892-1945) the former Crimean Turkish officer in the Czar’s inner guard who emigrated to Turkey during the Russian Revolution. Eminof was played by Kivanç Tatlituğ in the series Kurt Seyit ve Şura. As this series was my first introduction to the Turkish dizi industry and its talented storytellers, a visit to the Pera Palace was already high on my travel itinerary for when I finally get to visit Istanbul. Seeing it up close in the gorgeous frames of Midnight at the Pera Palace has only reinforced that wish. Would I encounter the mysterious key and get transported back to the early 20th century …?!
All in all, Midnight at the Pera Palace is an entertaining series worth watching, if only because it may help introduce viewers unfamiliar with Istanbul to one of its most celebrated landmarks, and to an important era in Turkish history and culture.
It’s also a good vehicle to introduce audiences in North America and elsewhere to the quality of Turkish shows. Dizi purists will probably dissent, but I think there is a niche for this kind of production which introduces Turkish film making to broader international audiences who might otherwise be daunted by traditional dizi productions in excess of a hundred episodes.
So settle in a comfortable couch, click on Netflix and let yourself be transported to 1919 Istanbul, with Midnight at the Pera Palace…I highly recommend it!
My deep appreciation to Professor Aydan Senoğlu who clarified many of the historical facts addressed in this series, and whose research on the historical figures behind the lead characters helped provide a more thorough understanding of the story told in Midnight at the Pera Palace.
Copyright Michele Calderon & North America TEN
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