‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ Review: Ewan McGregor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead Shine in Showtime’s Gently Restrained Period Drama

Injecting traces of whimsy into a historical tragedy is a precarious thing. If you do it well, you get Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, but if you do it poorly, you get Netflix’s All the Light We Cannot See. And it isn’t some clear-cut empirical thing, since Life Is Beautiful and Jojo Rabbit are Oscar-winning classics for some and unbearable pablum to others. (Me, I am Others.)

One person’s “restraint” is another person’s “excessively muted” and yet another person’s “still too darned sentimental.”

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I’m here to praise Showtime’s A Gentleman in Moscow for its general restraint. The limited series take on Amor Towles’ 2016 novel tiptoes along an allegorical line, without toppling over into either outright whimsy or voyeuristic gawking at the flawed idealism and generational traumas of the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a dark story that still has some levity, some heart and, despite a padded eight-hour running time, very little intellectual depth. So you probably want to enjoy it as you’re watching — and Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a fine supporting cast make that very easy — and then not think too deeply about it from there.

Adapted by Ben Vanstone, who previously exhibited his comfort food chops on PBS’ All Creatures Great and Small, A Gentleman in Moscow begins in 1921 with McGregor’s Count Alexander Rostov facing a tribunal. Like many of his status, Rostov has been deemed socially superfluous, and he would face execution were it not for a strange quirk. His name was on a poem that some revolutionaries found inspirational and, thanks to the influence of that poem, Rostov’s life is spared.

Instead, he’s sentenced to permanent house arrest at the Metropol Hotel, a luxury establishment that remains open for shady information-gathering reasons. It happens that Rostov has already spent the past four years living at the Metropol, so this isn’t much of an inconvenience, other than the whole “not being able to leave” thing. Though as a legacy media television critic who largely works from home, I may just have inherent empathy for shut-in members of a dying breed.

Rostov is forced to leave his beloved Suite 317 and move to the hotel’s drafty attic, but the irrepressible gourmand still gets complimentary meals and booze from the hotel’s fancy restaurant, which makes his life one notch nicer than your average shut-in TV critic. Of course, it’s post-revolutionary Russia, so the restaurant doesn’t always have veal. House arrest is tough, y’all!

Over the next few decades, Rostov remains at the Metropol. He befriends most of the staff, other than the ultra-shady Leplevsky (John Heffernan), who looms in doorways like a Soviet Slenderman. He has a peculiar romance with aspiring movie star Anna Urbanova (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). He befriends a seemingly parentless young girl (Alexa Goodall’s Nina), who I was convinced for nearly a full episode was a figment of his imagination. And he gets periodic visits from a skulking authority figure (Johnny Harris) who smart viewers will know is meant to be Javert-esque even before the characters discuss Les Misérables.

A Gentleman in Moscow frequently does things like that, making sure you understand points that require no underlining — like a scene in which characters watch It’s a Wonderful Life, just in case you didn’t get that the entire series was about the often invisible ways in which our lives touch and impact those around us.

Yet for all the ways the series is the opposite of subtle, it underplays elements that normally irritate me in shows like this. The accents, for example, are effectively minimized, with most of the cast just settling for something “British” or “European” rather than engaging in a Boris and Natasha competition. And although the series takes place over 30-plus years, it’s mostly enough to dab a little gray around the temples, and if I can’t tell you how old Count Rostov is supposed to be when the story starts and how old he’s supposed to be by the end, that’s a small price to pay for not larding on the latex.

Actually, maybe the use of It’s a Wonderful Life is necessary, because one of the places A Gentleman in Moscow is perhaps too subtle is in its character arcs. Rostov is defined by general agreeability; while he did something bad in his past — frequent dreamy flashbacks shift to a boxy aspect ratio and let the show escape the hotel occasionally — the man we meet is generally and innocuously decent. Over eight episodes he changes very little. His arc is minimal, and if you stop to ponder too much about his connections to the staff at the Metropol, you’re more likely to realize that despite the padded running time, almost none of them even reach one-dimensional character status.

Of course, pondering is a bad idea, because the more you ponder, the more you might wonder if “slightly inconvenienced aristocrat” is a sympathetic character type in 2024. There’s a reading of A Gentleman in Moscow that frames it as one of the most conservative shows in years: a drama in which the old ways might have been bad, but the progressive new order — with its criticisms of “privilege” and its top-to-bottom hegemonic upheavals — is far worse.

Then again, anybody preparing an “Actually, A Gentleman in Moscow is a condemnation of cancel culture!” thesis would have to deal with the series’ race-blind casting, which gives us the fierce Fehinti Balogun as Mishka, the rare Bolshevik with dreadlocks. So A Gentleman in Moscow is both “reactionary” and “woke” at the same time, which means it’s ideologically nothing and fundamentally comforting for everyone. It’s about learning to be a parent and a friend and a lover and a head waiter, all while hermetically sealed in a world in which famines and wars are more than rumors but less than consequential.

We’re willing to embrace our vaguely oligarchal protagonist in part because A Gentleman in Moscow represents McGregor at his most generally amiable. With the exception of one episode in which Rostov gets very sad about his predicament, he isn’t tormented, and the show around him matches his tone. He’s very earnest about vintage wines, very precise about his mustache and very funny in performing morning calisthenics. He and real-life spouse Winstead have a chemistry that starts out amusing and becomes rather sweet and well-earned, and Winstead’s take on an actress going from budding ingénue to of-a-certain-age in the blink of an eye is a poignant parallel to the show’s empire rise-and-fall backdrop. McGregor is even better in his scenes with his various young co-stars, with Goodall shining in the first couple of episodes and sisters Billie and Beau Gadsdon making strong impressions as Sofia, who is pivotal to the story’s homestretch.

There are other solid supporting performances — Harris broods especially soulfully — but this is one of those shows in which the location is a character. Yes, I feel dirty every time I use that cliché, but Victor Molero’s production design on the Metropol vastly exceeds HBO’s comparable insular opulence on The Regime, with directors Sam Miller and Sarah O’Gorman using the various staircases and hidden passageways to maintain a constant sense of visual momentum.

Narrative momentum is a bit harder to come by, with the eight episodes requiring repetitive character loops and plot points. But once you accept that the series is largely about Rostov making sense of his restrictive circumstances, it isn’t hard to sit back and enjoy McGregor and Winstead and Sam Perry’s costumes and the general claustrophobic sumptuousness of it all.

By the time A Gentleman in Moscow started to aggressively yank on my heartstrings and feel manipulative, I had enough investment that I was willing to go along for the closing episodes before moving on.

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