A Gentleman in Moscow TV review: Ewan McGregor’s lush historical adaptation

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
A Gentleman in Moscow stars Ewan McGregor.
A Gentleman in Moscow stars Ewan McGregor. Credit: Paramount+

There are worse places to be under house arrest than in an opulent hotel. After all, didn’t Eloise live at The Plaza voluntarily?

Of course, those luxe surroundings become a prison when you’re consigned to a dingy and cold attic room with a trifle of a bed, barely any heat and the threat of being shot on sight if you ever step out of those gilded, revolving front doors.

Adapted from Amor Towles’s 2016 novel which sold more than four million copies, A Gentleman in Moscow is a lush historical drama set against the backdrop of post-revolutionary Russia, centred on a fallen aristocrat out of step with the history being made around him.

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Count Rostov (Ewan McGregor) is a nobleman who returns home to Russian after the Bolshevik Revolution. His kind are an endangered species and he’s lucky to keep his head during a quick tribunal which charges him with being, well, born rich.

Ewan McGregor stars in A Gentleman in Moscow.
A Gentleman in Moscow is adapted from Amor Towles’ book. Credit: Supplied/TheWest

Saved from death but stripped of his property, wealth and titles, Rostov is sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel, a grand establishment where he is expected to live out the rest of his life. There, he’s transferred from his lavish suite to a room that was reserved for servants.

But promised room and board — and his life — Rostov bears well under his diminished circumstances. He still dresses for meals in the hotel’s dining rooms, served by the staff with whom he forms a bond, and engages in witty conversation.

He also meets Nina (Alexa Goodall), a precocious nine-year-old who desires to be told stories of princesses in a world where they’re killed in the dead of the night. And Anna Urbanova (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an actor whose career prospects are now up in the air in the new social order, becomes his on-and-off paramour, whenever she’s breezing through the hotel.

McGregor and Winstead are real-life husband-and-wife — A Gentleman in Moscow is their third onscreen collaboration — and their playful, charged chemistry is one of the selling points of the series. You want to watch these two characters entwined, two lonely souls lit up together.

Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow episode 1, streaming on Paramount+ 2024. Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Ewan McGregor’s real-life partner. Credit: Ben Blackall/Paramount+ with SHO/Ben Blackall/Paramount+ with Sho

Rostov also deepens his relationship with Mishka (Fehtinti Balogun), a revolutionary that he knows from the before-times, and has to come to terms with how their pasts mesh in the present.

There is great upheaval beyond the walls of the Metropol, which permeates its boundaries bit-by-bit. Even a grand hotel cannot stay the same forever when history is marching, and neither can Rostov, try as he might.

He tries to retain his civility and manners, the last vestiges of a life that no longer exists in a country that wishes he didn’t. But you can only control so much and that unruffled façade slips every now and then, such as when Rostov is confronted with what it means that old acquaintances are either too scared or too dead to attend a memorial service he throws.

The series, adapted by Ben Vanstone and directed by Sam Miller and Sarah O’Gorman, revels in the details of Towles’ book. Something as innocuous as wine labels come to stand in for something politically significant.

Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow episode 1, streaming on Paramount+ 2024. Photo Credit: Ben Blackall/Paramount+ With Showtime
Ewan McGregor in A Gentleman in Moscow. Credit: Ben Blackall/Paramount+ /Ben Blackall/Paramount+

Politics and fear are never far. The show subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly reminds audiences of the promises of revolution and the inevitable abuses that follow from authoritarian rule. There are sideways glances, the forced adjustments inside the hotel, the presence of government agents to lend A Gentleman in Moscow a softly menacing air.

Set over several decades, the show ages up its characters, a challenge McGregor takes in his stride. The Scottish thespian hasn’t always been given his due partly because he is rather attractive and can really belt out a tune, but he has a quiet sadness that underlines his version of Rostov.

There’s grace in his performance and there is elegance in A Gentleman in Moscow. It’s a series that glides down easily as it invites you to be part of its world, to stand still for a small moment before everything changes, again.

A Gentleman in Moscow is streaming on Paramount+ from March 29

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