The Romanoffs, Amazon Prime, review: this hyper-expensive folly is hardly the next Mad Men

Christina Hendricks in The Romanoffs - Amazon
Christina Hendricks in The Romanoffs - Amazon

The weight of a thousand Fabergé eggs sits on the shoulders of the new anthology series from Mad Man creator Matthew Weiner. A bidding war for The Romanoffs culminated in Amazon Prime plonking down a rafter-shaking $70 million for rights to the eight-part drama – making it one of the priciest TV shows ever. The glittering question is whether it will deliver unto Amazon the breakout hit for which it has strived tirelessly or represents further fistfuls of internet lolly flushed around the virtual U-bend.

Amazon’s blizzards of cash unquestionably translate into a sumptuous viewing experience. The Romanoffs twinkles with A-listers; Aaron Eckhart plays a gadabout American in Paris in one episode, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks a discombobulated movie star in another. It features such picture postcard backdrops as the 1st Arrondissement and the bucolic Austrian countryside (in reality the bulk of the filming was in Romania). 

But all that glisters is not riveting telly. Under its gleaming trappings, The Romanoffs is an uneven and often somnambulant ride that feels certain to test even the hardiest attention span. It also surely calls into question Amazon’s budget-busting strategy for unseating streaming rival Netflix.

Granted, the sheer gilded splendour ensures The Romanoffs is a balm for the eyeballs. Yet surface shimmer quickly fades. Many Prime subscribers will surely find the hodgepodge of 90 minute mini-movies Weiner has co-written and directed – in defiance of binging convention, a new episode is to be released weekly – the equivalent of Marmite with sleeping pills ground in.

The big idea is that each story involves a scion of the deposed Russian monarchy (or at any rate someone claiming to be a scion of the Russian monarchy). In The Violet Hour, Anushka (veteran Swiss actress Marthe Keller) is a crotchety descendent of the Czar living in resentful splendour in Paris. She is haughtily seeing out her days in an opulent apartment as her nephew Greg (Eckhart) and his calculating partner Sophie (Louise Bourgoin) lustily eye this mini-Winter Palace, regarding it as the birthright they have been too long denied. 

Into this tense scenario walks Muslim care-worker Hajar (Inès Melab). She initially provokes Anushka’s rampant Islamophobia but the pair eventually strike up an unlikely friendship. It’s heightened kitchen sink drama, acted with fervour, and with Paris in the summer as a gorgeous framing device. 

Yet, much like Man Men on a sorry day, the characters feel like mouthpieces for Weiner rather than autonomous human beings, and the final twist manages to be simultaneity pat, implausible and dull. The Woody Allen-esque premise also recalls that director at his crassest, with the young female protagonists uniformly deeming middle-aged Greg a hunk on a stick. 

The ghosts of the Romanoffs rattle their chains in more literal fashion in the second episode, House of Special Purpose, in which Weiner seeks to reinvent himself as a spinner of a skin-crawling bedtime yarns. Here the ambience is Wilkie Collins meets Robert Altman’s The Player, upon which are smeared cheesy dollops of Seventies potboiler Tales of the Unexpected. 

Christina Hendricks (Mad Men’s Joan Holloway) is Olivia Rogers, a matinee icon drafted in to play Empress Alexandra in a prestige TV reenactment of the Romanoffs’ final years (a meta-wink suggesting Weiner had far too much time to ponder his new project). 

It soon becomes clear she has signed up for more than Emmy bait. Olivia’s accommodation during the shoot is in a spooky hotel straight out of Kubrick’s The Shining. It even features – presumably at no extra charge – a creepy girl in period dress traipsing through her room at the dead of night.

Things are just as unnerving on set. Olivia is essentially assaulted by her co-star (Jack Huston), portraying the Empress’s devilish lover Rasputin. Meanwhile her phone loses its signal and one of the assistants pretends to be unable to speak English around her. 

Her chief tormentor is the director, Jacqueline (Isabelle Huppert), who claims to be a descendant to the Romanoffs and brings her own bonkers perspective to their demise at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Weiner’s own sensibility is almost as unhinged. In one queasy scene he wades straight into surreal Twin Peaks territory by having the actor playing Czar Nicholas burst into Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds – to the understandable bafflement of Olivia and the delight of the unhinged Jacqueline. 

 The Romanoffs was one of two mega-budget shows Amazon agreed to produce with Harvey Weinstein’s Weinstein Company. The first, an untitled $160 million David O’Russell series starring Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore, was scrapped in the wake of Weinstein’s public downfall. The Romanoffs was spared such a culling and instead taken over by Amazon’s in-house production division. 

Adding to its problematic gestation is the fact it was championed within the company by Roy Price, the Amazon Studios head who stepped down last year amid sexual harassment allegations. Weiner, too, has been accused of making inappropriate comments to a female colleague. Kate Gordon, a Mad Men scriptwriter, says she was ostracised after rejecting her boss’s advances. (Weiner's legal representative has said the alleged comments "do not reflect" anything he would say.) The issue has resurfaced on the press tour for The Romanoffs, with Weiner telling Vanity Fair he has no recollection of speaking inappropriately towards his former staffer.

The treatment of women in Hollywood is touched on fleetingly in House of Special Purpose, in which Hendricks is gripping as a star negotiating an industry that sees her as a little more than an object to be manipulated, physically and psychologically. But, as with The Violet Hour, the tone is faltering and the creeping pace – a crime of which Mad Men could be guilty even at its best – makes for an uphill push. 

The patina of the uncanny hanging over House of Special Purpose is ultimately more disorienting than riveting. Moreover, anyone looking forward to the cocktail-hour banter of Mad Men will find The Romanoffs’ early episodes falling short of the TV revolution its huge budget portended. Whatever about Elvis, Don Draper has definitely left the building.

Weiner also leaves himself open to accusations of poor taste with an opening credits sequence in which the Bolshevik execution of the Czar and his family is recreated in stylised slow motion to the strains of Tom Petty’s Refugee – as if a real-life mass slaughter was a quirky historical bauble begging to be spruced up. 

The first episode of The Romanoffs will premiere on Amazon Prime on October 12