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Ewan McGregor Cuts an Impressive Yet Tragic Figure as A Gentleman in Moscow

Ben Vanstone's adaptation of Amor Towles' bestseller marries whimsy and melancholy across a decades-spanning story.
  • Ewan McGregor in A Gentleman in Moscow (Photo: Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime)
    Ewan McGregor in A Gentleman in Moscow (Photo: Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime)

    Despite the option to skip them altogether, opening credits in the streaming era don’t have to be an afterthought. Before we even clock eyes on Ewan McGregor’s dazzling (real) mustache and voluminous curls as Russian count Alexander Ilyich Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow, the melancholy strains of Federico Jusid’s theme song and the Art Nouveau illustrations immediately give a sense of time and place. The series begins in 1921, with title cards offering a brief history of events since the Bolsheviks snatched power from the elite ruling class. Rostov is a relic of the world before the 1917 Russian Revolution, but the opulent Metropol Hotel is a slice of the past entwined with the present. Ben Vanstone's eight-part series achieves this delicate ideological balance through its grounding performances, impressive world-building, and mix of whimsy and narrative high stakes.

    Unlike his fellow blue bloods, Rostov isn’t sentenced to death or exiled from Russia. Instead, he must live the rest of his life at the Metropol in an attic room once occupied by servants. If he leaves, he will be shot on sight. A pro-Communist poem attributed to Rostov before the Revolution brings about this unique punishment, and art doubles as a lifesaver throughout this story. Regimes change, but great Russian literature, music, and portraits still hold power and influence, regardless of whether they have been burned, banned, or painted over.

    Based on Amor Towles' 2016 historical fiction bestseller, A Gentleman in Moscow is ripe for an audience that experienced pandemic-related lockdowns not too long ago. For starters, Rostov still finds daily pleasure despite his change in circumstances. By deepening Rostov’s bonds with the hotel staff and other guests and giving those characters more backstory, the series avoids telling a simplistic “becoming richer even when you are poorer” tale. The former count is still the axis this world spins on. Yet Vanstone ensures characters like glamorous film star Anna Urbanova (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) have interiority and agency beyond Rostov’s point of view.

    Anna is far more than a romantic foil, offering a window into the outside world and the political games at play. Winstead easily nails sardonic one-liners, and playing a starlet is something she can do with her eyes closed. At first, it seems like this is all Winstead will get to do, but as the series progresses, Anna’s vulnerabilities become more pronounced, and more details about her past ensures this character is far from one note.

    Different love stories develop within the Metropol’s gilded walls, and Rostov’s on-again, off-again relationship with Anna is as rich as the father-daughter bond with Nina (Alexa Goodall). Flashbacks to Roskov’s pre-Revolution youth are shot in first-person perspective, offering a haziness to an era existing in memory alone that is better in theory than in practice; the choice to avoid showing Rostov’s face in flashbacks reads more like a way not to cast a younger actor. The repetition of fragmented imagery belabors the inability to return to this time, heightened by the perpetual snow enveloping the hotel and the warm glow of pre-Revolution summers. Sunshine doesn’t equate to happiness, though, and Rostov’s complicated past is more effectively told in his present-day conversation with his best friend from university, Mishka (Fehinti Balogun).

    I May Destroy You director Sam Miller (who helms five episodes) ensures the Metropol doesn’t become a stale setting while the decades-spanning story charts upheavals within the new Soviet power structure. Staircases are a connective tissue of this labyrinth that can make this environment feel endless or like the walls are closing in, depending on Rostov’s mood and circumstances. Production designer Victor Molero rises to the challenge of recreating a real luxury hotel, showing a changing ecosystem whose glory never truly fades, no matter how many banners cover its walls.

    Whereas the novel treats much of the danger outside the hotel as a peripheral threat, this adaptation ensures the count can never get too comfy in his routine and environment, or take the safety of his friends and acquaintances for granted. While certain moments resemble a playful Wes Anderson aesthetic, this underlying danger ensures Rokov’s house arrest isn’t all fun and games.

    McGregor is particularly adept at depicting Rostov’s oscillating joie de vivre and crushing sadness at all he has lost. His bushy mustache doesn’t pull focus, instead offering another weapon in his reaction arsenal. Whether playing against child actors or his real-life wife, McGregor proves his capacity for subtle emotions, endless charm, and expressive storytelling that lights up Roskov’s entire being when he launches into another tale. In Ryan Murphy’s Halston, the Scottish actor played a character over several decades and did a solid job; here, the material matches his range.

    Showing the passage of time with one actor can lead to distracting aging makeup or insufficient cues to show the years gone by. Here, the subtle approach is taken, and flattening the curls, flecks of gray, and slight wrinkles is only part of the equation.No one actually twirls their mustache, but Bishop (John Heffernan), Rostov's constant thorn in his side, comes close. As far as antagonists go, he is an overt enemy from within. Where the series takes a more nuanced stand is Rostov’s relationship with Party officer Osip (Johnny Harris), who represents the deep well of the darkness of a country spying and turning on its own while also exhibiting a capacity for knowledge and even regret.

    Identity and loyalty are intrinsic to Rostov’s journey, which asks existential questions about how much a place can define you and what home means when liberty is restricted. It is a delicate balance, giving A Gentleman in Moscow a unique vantage point that doesn’t let the count entirely off the hook for how his version of the good old days was restrictive to most. Vanstone delivers a poignant and charming limited series that is well paced and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

    A Gentleman in Moscow premieres March 29 at 3:01 A.M. ET on Paramount+ With Showtime and 8:00 PM ET on Showtime. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Ewan McGregor, Showtime, A Gentleman in Moscow, Ben Vanstone, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Literary Adaptations, Paramount+ With Showtime