‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ Surprises

Thor Benander
Thor Benander is the Editor-in-Chief of The Antagonist and a father of four. He’s a lover of ancient history, Greek food, and sports. He loves to travel and thinks that if libraries were the center of American society, many things would improve overnight. You can hit him up at hilordcastleton@gmail.com.

If you were lucky enough to enjoy the lovely, prosaic novel of the same name by Amor Towles, you may have approached this television adaptation by Showtime with the trepidation I did.  It chronicles the story of one man during the fallout of the Russian Aristocracy, and the years afterward.  A red wave sweeps over Russia, where all the nobles are executed or flee the country, yet our character is saved by a twist of fate and a poem, of all things.  His nobility and breeding are contemptible in the new Russia, so while he’s allowed to keep his life, he is remanded to the square footage of the four-star Metropol Hotel in Moscow, and warned that if he ever steps foot outside, he will be shot.  

The role of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a layered one, which takes 462 pages of novel – almost exclusively about the main character, to fully capture.  What actor in this era engenders not only gravitas and pathos but whimsy and folly in equal measure?  Ewen McGregor would not have immediately leapt to mind.  (Kenneth Branagh was originally cast in the role and perhaps his theater background felt more “right” for it.) While he has shown admirable range over the course of his long career, the heady days of Trainspotting fame have largely been hidden behind a more recent conflagration of less interesting and more wooden performances.  The fault is not completely McGregor’s: many of his recent scripts have been less than stellar.  Nevertheless, I had imagined more of a Javier Bardem-ish actor in the central role.

If there was a knock on the novel for me, and it would be a love tap more than anything, it would be the idealized version of many of the female characters.  The Count’s sister, Helena, whom he holds in the highest regard and whose life, long after her death, manufactures the de facto spine of the story, cannot possibly have been as perfect as Rostov’s memories would have us believe.  Ditto for the character of Nina Kulikova, a whip-smart nine year old who becomes the Count’s best friend in his early years at the Metropol.  I’m not saying nine year olds can’t be fabulous and bright, but it’s one thing to write them that way and another thing entirely to have to cast a child actor to capture that magnificence.  The only woman in the story with true meat on the bone is the character of Anna Urbanova, a famous actress who charts an unenviable career trajectory alongside Rostov’s imprisonment. 

The series opens the way the novel does, with Rostov getting a contingent pardon and starting his new life in the Metropol, where a local apparatchik named Osip (Johnny Harris) moves him from his palatial suite to an uninsulated attic room once used by servants.  My wife fell asleep immediately and I was worried.  Out of the gate, McGregor whiffs on a key line that sets up the bravery of the count in the face of certain death.  During his hearing, the severe bureaucrats ask him his occupation and he replies that it’s “not the business of gentlemen to have occupations.”  Director Sam Miller cheats the line with a row of grumbles from the Greek chorus of onlookers, but it’s not quite right.  When Rostov is asked why he returned to Russia after the revolution when he could have saved himself in France, he glibly replies “I missed the climate.”  In the novel, we read that he wins over the onlookers with that line.  In the show, we’re less sure, and I left the scene significantly less sure of the casting choices by creator and showrunner Ben Vanstone.

We meet Nina in short order, and again, the casting choice was not at all what I expected.  That’s really neither here nor there, as what showrunner can compete with anyone’s internalized imagery of fictional characters?  Harris’ initial portrayal of Osip is so dour and stolid that we miss the specter of threat he’s meant to engender.  In addition, I’ll own that I’m bizarrely aware of Ewen McGregor’s veneers, which have seemed to alter his smile over the years.  Now, when I see it, I feel a tinge of madness in it.  Again, that’s me.  That’s not universal.  So, understanding that casting choices won’t always feel simpatico, the true test ultimately is: do the actors effectively inhabit the characters?  Despite some odd cinematographic and editing choices that hurt Nina’s introductory beauty shots, Alexa Goodall’s Nina grew on me.  Likewise for McGregor’s version of Rostov.  In contrast to what one might expect from his Scottish ancestry, he doesn’t seem to have the requisite well of sadness, and yet once I gave over and accepted him in the role, my estimation of his portrayal grew immensely.

Episode two is better than one, because we’re able to settle in a bit.  We meet more of the hotel staff, who serve as an important network of allies in the novel, and love interest Anna Urbanova.  I was excited for the chemistry between Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays the actress, and her real-life husband, McGregor, but the sparks were missing.  It’s too early to tell if Winstead is truly miscast or if she’ll shine in later episodes as the true actor-baity sequences for Urbanova are yet to come, but it was hard to imagine.  Again, I was looking for more voracity, and the choices felt a bit too milquetoast.  It’s lovely that a husband and wife team get to work together, but it makes you wonder about the arrangement.  Is it that McGregor would only agree to the role if Winstead was offered Anna?  In order to get that coveted greenlight, did Vanstone have to agree to the arrangement or was Winstead his go-to choice out of the gate and then she brought her husband along for the ride?  We’ll never know and Winstead is an excellent actor in her own right, but not necessarily someone I pictured playing Anna Urbanova.

Still, in spite of what seemed a notable, systemic miss in terms of casting, the show was compelling.  Twice I found myself smiling.  I laughed out loud once, and got misty during a scene where Nina and Rostov part: when he extends a hand to bid her farewell, she lunges in for a hug that they hold for a beautiful moment.  It’s quite an accomplishment to build a story that feels interesting when all of the various pieces seem figuratively misshapen, but Vanstone has managed to do it.  It’s not damning with faint praise.  I very much enjoyed the first two episodes of this show, even as I held the novel in unreachable esteem and generally clucked my disapproval of almost every casting inclination, with the notable exception of Fehinti Balogun as Mishka. He brings a level of nuance and suffering to the role that feels appropriately Russian.

It’s perhaps the least opportune time in America to feature a story of a wealthy, trust-fund dandy with no appreciable skills.  In an era of out-of-control billionaires, it’s a leap of faith to root for a man who grew up in a castle only to lose it when his country decided to share.  That’s certainly an oversimplification, but how difficult of a needle it is to thread to make the audience see Count Rostov not merely as a fop who thought his blood insulated him from vocation, but as a human being experiencing loss and grief?  I have a sense that this team will properly manage his journey of reinvention and rediscovery, focusing not on the wealth or lack thereof, but on one man’s humanity in the face of oppression.  It’s a journey that ultimately sets up an ending for Rostov that is blissfully and appropriately earned.  

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