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A Gentleman in Moscow review – Ewan McGregor is almost as fantastic as his outrageous moustache
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A Gentleman in Moscow review – Ewan McGregor is almost as fantastic as his outrageous moustache

Some books are difficult to film, and TV is a fool to attempt them. Others, however, perch on the shelf poised and preened, all dressed up and ready for the small screen. Amor Towles’s 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow could have been designed as a handsome, charming period drama, of the kind that once slid smoothly on to BBC One or ITV1 on a Sunday evening. It’s actually on Paramount+, but is handsome and charming and Sunday-ish still.

It remains to be seen whether Paramount takes advantage of the fact that the novel’s early chapters create a setup that could run on TV indefinitely, or whether it renders roughly the same amount of narrative as the book then bids us adieu. But that setup is this: in Moscow in 1921, four years after the revolution, the country’s disfranchised aristocracy face summary trials and executions. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (Ewan McGregor) – Sasha to his friends, “Your Excellency” to the dwindling minority of Russians who still recognise honorifics – seems to be next, but is saved from death by the surprising fact that he is the credited author of a seminal revolutionary poem.

With moderates not wanting Rostov dead, but with hardliners wanting to keep tabs on him, the Bolsheviks devise an unusual purgatory. He is returned to the magnificent old Metropol Hotel, where he has recently been living. He must renounce his possessions and money, and swap his suite for a cold, cramped attic room formerly inhabited by hotel staff. So long as he does nothing to anger the authorities, his food and board are free, for life. But if he ever sets foot outside, he is to be shot on the spot.

Thus the count has unlimited time in which to befriend the other long-term residents of the hotel, as well as the waiters, the barber, the seamstress, the concierge, the musicians who come to play and the luminaries who come and go as guests. He is well equipped to make the acquaintance of anyone who, like him, is good of heart and twinkly of demeanour, since he is a gourmand, a thinker, a drinker, a reader and a fighter – the sort of educated eccentric who has a latent skill or unbelievable anecdote for any new situation. As one surveys his Einstein curls and majestic Ned Flanders moustache, the desire to sit across from him at dinner and be corrected on which vintage wine would best complement the fish course is strong.

The show renders its locked-down, snow-globe fantasy world impeccably, especially once it has teamed the count with that staple of stories about imagination overcoming adversity: an inquisitive nine-year-old. Nina (Alexa Goodall) is unencumbered by any attentive parent, and knows where to find all the hotel’s secret passages, hidden staircases and dusty locked rooms full of confiscated treasure. The girl is fascinated, too, by the regal glamour of the world the count used to know. With his own family all lost, the childless aristocrat now has a ward he must inspire and protect. Or perhaps it is the other way around.

The stage is set, with a chill wind piercing the cosiness in the form of a perfectly cast Johnny Harris as Osip, an unsmiling Bolshevik nemesis who is obsessed with finding a reason to have the count killed – and who has reason to be hopeful, on account of the man’s flamboyantly reckless refusal to do as he sees fit. Episode one co-stars Paul Ready in his finest delicately tragic mode, as a fallen prince who finds solace in playing Rachmaninov on the violin, and who tries to convince the count to join an unlikely escape plan that involves walking to Minsk in disguise. Next week’s instalment introduces Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the main love interest, a wily and assertive film star.

It is a fantastic dramatic playground that requires a big lead performance to sweep all the pieces together into a glittering whirl. Happily, McGregor’s Rostov is intoxicating when the character is winning and affecting when the actor allows the great sadness at the core of this benighted man to flash across his eyes. McGregor’s posture and gait, precise and proper but with the rolling swagger of someone whose default setting is to be delighted by whatever is behind the next door, are as key to the Rostov vibe as his fantabulous facial hair.

A Gentleman in Moscow’s lightweight politics ensure there is a softness about it, even when people are being shot through the skull, so it can’t be called essential. But your stay at the Metropol will be a pleasant one.

  • A Gentleman in Moscow is on Paramount+ now

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Source: theguardian.com