Life, etc

FLIXATION: The Romanoffs: Remnants of a Dynasty, a century removed

Imagine if the British royal family were cut down and the remaining outlier relatives lived on, but without rank. And that, 100 years later, their descendants were just ordinary people scattered in the diaspora. Meet The Romanoffs.

To get into the soul of Matthew Weiner’s new series – he being the writer-director behind the stylish, period ad-exec series Mad Men – it’s best to see it against a backdrop of the emperors, barons and princes of old Europe and the peasants they suppressed, then offset that against the present world where the endlessly downtrodden are drawing a line in the sand. In our time, the result is rising populism and opposition to neoliberalism; in 1789 it was the peasantry rising up in France and its colonies, and in Russia a century ago – in July, 1918 – it was the Bolsheviks laying waste to the dynasty that had ruled for generations. They were the Romanovs, or Romanoffs if you’re American. The Romanovs had ruled Russia for 304 years, until 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in the wake of the February Revolution of that year, with its mass demonstrations against food rationing in the then capital Petrograd (St Petersburg). Eighteen of the 65-strong Romanov dynasty would die at the hands of the Bolsheviks, including Nicholas and Alexandra and their five children, when they were massacred by gunfire at Yekaterinburg – where they had been under house arrest – on 17 July 1918. But 65 minus 18 equals 47. Which is where – with a lot of imagination and a century having passed – this series comes into play. Whatever happened to them? Imagine if the British royal family were cut down and the remaining outlier relatives lived on, but without rank. And that, 100 years later, their descendants were just ordinary people scattered in the diaspora. They’d know what might have been – had their antecedents not been such uppity aristocratic twats – because their “heritage” would have been passed down to them. There’d be resentments, perhaps a sense of interrupted entitlement that breeds discontent. Doubtless, there’d be Windsors – Ronnie Windsor the plumber from Bognor Regis, perhaps, or Reggie Windsor the pockmarked East End pugilist, with his bull terrier, Bill Sykes – who’d be amused at the knowledge but not let it get in the way of their ordinary lives. They’d probably be the happier ones. Okay, maybe not Reggie, who’d take out any frustrations on his opponent’s face. And there’d be other latterday Windsors – Liberty Windsor the retired prima ballerina with her trophy pet, Harriet the Chihuahua, who she insists must have her cushion at The Ivy, or Digby Windsor, whose brushes with the law were paid off in mysterious ways from his dodgy estate – who felt they were above certain things, and more important than a lot of people, and who referred to their “lineage” incessantly. The loss of their “heritage” would gnaw at them, and erode their contentment. For The Romanoffs, Weiner has taken the idea of the Romanovs/offs having descendants in the diaspora today, and created individual fictional stories around them, or who they might be. It’s an out-there sort of idea for a television series, but it sure works. It’s also another example of the new taste for anthologies in television. Like Black Mirror and Room 104, The Romanoffs brings us a procession of separate stories around a theme. Each plays like a mini movie. And, unlike most Netflix or Amazon Prime Video series which get loaded on to the platform in their entirety, The Romanoffs is being delivered to us an episode at a time. There are four so far, with the fifth episode imminent. Watch the official trailer: I confess to having been puzzled and sceptical at first. Why should we care about the descendants of a one-time Russian dynasty; they’re just ordinary people now. But Mad Men showed Weiner to be an ingenious writer and plotter, and the very first episode of The Romanovs, The Violet Hour, got my attention, right from the off. Not least because the lead in it is the veteran Swiss actress Marthe Keller, who is a commanding presence in the episode as a haughty and deeply prejudiced Romanov descendant who despite her unfortunate background has bucketloads of money. The essence of the aristocratic roots of her ancestors has not dissipated down the generations, and if you think about it she could not be all that far removed from the generation that either died or survived the massacre of the core of the Romanov family in 1918. (That story is explored intelligently yet mischievously in the third episode). She seems to be around 70 (Keller is 73), which puts her birth year at 1945, only 27 years after their murder. So she is likely to be only the next generation on; hence the likelihood that the killing, and the removal of her dynasty’s power and influence, would be a pretty painful thorn in her side. And another trailer: Into her ordered and somewhat histrionic world comes a new minder, who – without wishing to give too much away – is from a world very different from her own. Or so she thinks. Prejudices spill on the floor of her palatial Paris apartment, in a great piece of drama that plays out so well. There are surprising plot turns, and though some of them are a little less surprising, everything falls perfectly into place in the end. The episode is also gorgeously dressed... from Keller’s own wardrobe to the furnishings in her apartment, not least the heirloom Fabergé egg. Or is it? So we leave that episode behind us and, in the second (The Royal We), we find ourselves in present-day New York City where Michael Romanov – he uses the ‘v’ – is having marital issues. Played by Corey Stoll, we first meet him in a marriage counselling session with his wife, played by Janet Montgomery, who played the cold English actress opposite Justin ‘The Manny’ Hartley in This Is Us. Her complaint is that he won’t do “anything”. He won’t shop with her, go hiking, to a show, to dinner, nothing. She has a point. During the days that follow, instead of the two going on the holiday cruise he’d planned and paid for, he stays behind while she goes alone, the cruise turning out to be all about Romanov descendants. It’s a fun, sometimes darkly funny exploration of what it might mean to be just the kind of descendant in my conjecture about the Windsors above. As much as that episode is very far removed from the first, so episode three – The House of Special Purpose (Vulture dubbed it Austrian Horror Story) – is a leap into another space and place altogether. A pampered Hollywood actress (Christina Hendricks) is flown in to a film set in Europe to play no less than the Empress Alexandra herself, in a TV series about the killing of the Romanov family in July 1918. Weiner writes and directs it as a horror show, and the star of it – which is not to say Hendricks does not do a great job, she does – is another veteran, French star Isabelle Huppert, as the show’s director. This is a tie for me as the best of the four episodes I’ve seen so far, along with the first, The Violet Hour. And it’s clear, already, that one will quickly choose favourites and other episodes one is happy to leave behind. Like, for me, episode four, Expectation, with Amanda Peet as a pending grandmother of a child who may or may not be a Romanov descendant. It’s so far removed from the other three episodes, and so plain and blah by comparison, that personally I was wondering what Weiner had been smoking, or hadn’t. We’re watching this with America and the rest of the world, if you have Amazon Prime, and we know so far that up to eight episodes are in the offing. Due next are Bright and High Circle, Panorama, End of the Line and The One That Holds Everything (not a nod to Friends, one wonders). Bright and High Circle features Diane Lane as a character who occurred briefly in episode four. So there is just a smidgen of continuity. (John Slattery, a key player in episode four, had a tiny cameo in the second as well.) I’d put money on The Romanoffs going on for at least a second or third season. And the return of anthologies is great news for those who like a good drama, well plotted, directed and, as all four of the episodes so far show, acted. Even episode four. DM