Sunday, November 4, 2018

Streaming Review: "The Romanoffs" (SPOILERS)

I was catching up on the latest season of the inter-dimensional alternate history sci-fi mash up The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime last week (I might get to that at some later point). In between episodes were ads for a new program called The Romanoffs. I didn't look that closely, so I missed that it was produced, written and, directed by Matthew Weiner, of Mad Men fame. It's hard to believe that that show has been off the air for over three years now, but so it has. Once I woke up the fact that The Romanoffs was a Matt Weiner production I  caught the first episode tout de suite. According to Wikipedia there was a bidding war between the various cable and streaming outlets for his next project, and Amazon came out the winner. Now there's only one question left: is this a prize Amazon wishes it had lost?

A new episode is dropping every Friday, and so far five out of the eight are available. I've only caught the first installment, as I've said, but since this is an anthology series it's not like there's a narrative, recurring characters or the highly addictive cliffhanger ending that's impelling me to binge watch like a serial might. The central conceit is that each story revolves around different ancestors, real or presumed, of the Russian royal family that was slaughtered in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. 

The first story, called The Violet Hour, features Aaron Eckhart as Greg Moffat, an American expatriate in Paris, running a small hotel and caring for his aging and ailing aunt (Marthe Keller), who happens to be a descendant of the Romanoffs. For someone who's dying, Aunt Anushka is incredibly vital, and feisty. She can't keep a caregiver because of her royal disdain for servants, never mind her acid tongue that scorches anyone within earshot irrespective of lineage. After rudely dismissing her latest domestic, she is mortified when the agency sends over Hajar, an Algerian Muslim in traditional headdress (Inès Melab), to serve as her maid. To be honest, I don't know any home caregiver who would put up with the insults that this young woman endures, but she stoically perseveres and eventually she wins the old lady over. Greg is a decent fellow, but is hanging on, along with his girlfriend (Louise Bourgoin), for the old lady to kick off so he (they) can inherit her palatial apartment. After a few missed phone calls at a crucial moment, the mercurial Anushka writes Greg out of the will, and leaves the apartment to Hajar. 

After trying to talk Hajar out of taking the apparent, she and Greg end up sharing a passionate embrace, as the kids these days would say. She leaves Anushka's employ, but shows back up two months later, with her own mother, to tell him that she's pregnant. In an unforeseen turn of events, Hajar reveals that she is in love with Greg; sleeping with him wasn't about gold digging. He reveals that he's actually happy that they're going to have a baby, and the aunt is ecstatic that her lone wish, that the family "line would continue," was being fulfilled. The only predictable thing was the girlfriend losing her stuff, again, kids say the darnedest things, finally walking out of the apartment while grabbing a (presumed) priceless Fabergé egg as her parting gift.

As Rotten Tomatoes noted, and I agree, this first episode of The Romanoffs anyway, is both self indulgent and trying on the viewer. In a way I can forgive Matthew Weiner both sins. As good as Mad Men was, and I was a big time fan, his hands were tied by AMC on a number of fronts, not the least of which was the strict running time, which varied, but was nonetheless a bone of contention. AMC wanted to fit the show into the hour time slot with space for commercials. So, scenes sometimes had the feel of being cut short, monologues or dialogues didn't always have the time to develop the way they could have if time allowed. He was also restricted by basic cable rules on language and sexual content (which isn't the worst thing from my stand point), but I can see Weiner's side, since he'd worked on The Sopranos where just about anything went, and it usually did, with pretty much as much time as they wanted to do it in. How can I blame him for spreading his creative wings bit?

In the case of The Violet Hour, the language problem has little to do with profanity (yes, there's some, but not a lot), but with French. The majority of the dialogue is delivered in the Gallic tongue, and it did get a little tedious to my anglophone ears. I'm no stranger to foreign language films, but because I wasn't prepared mentally to have to read subtitles three quarters of the time, I found myself getting impatient. As for pacing, the episode ran a little under an hour and a half. Weiner takes his time unfolding the story, but I'm not sure he needed all the time to do it. It's a pretty simple plot, so cutting it back ten minutes or so wouldn't have hurt things at all. 

The excess really isn't all that excessive, and in many ways The Violet Hour highlights some of Weiner's signature strengths. He's extremely literate, and constructs the story subtlety, yet deliberately. He's writing a novel, or in this case a short story, with themes, foreshadowing and symmetry. He's not simply telling a cute story, or trying titillate or shock. He may throw titillating or shocking elements in, but there's always a payoff down the line that points to something deeper. He doesn't use music, whether it's popular standards or classical, without a reason, either. Having the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic Refugee play over the title sequence that features the Czar and family being eliminated way back when, is on purpose. I'm not familiar with the popular French songs he chose, but the use of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade was particularly telling, and not just because the composer was Russian.

Scheherazade is the symphonic rendering of the "One Thousand and One Nights," in which the titular heroine staves off her own execution by the unreasonably jealous sultan by telling him stories each night, leaving them on a cliff hanger so that he wants to hear more the following evening.  Through these stories, a 1001 of them to be precise, she not only delays her own death, but wins the sultan's heart. In this way Anushka and Hajar win each other over by sharing their stories and histories. At first Anushka rubs the younger woman's face in past European victories over Muslim invaders, using history as a weapon. But soon a mutual appreciation develops. It's mainly Anushka who shares the stories of her family's ups and downs, and her personal tragedies. Later, when Greg tries to convince Hajar to give up her claim, he abandons his initial tough guy approach and opens up about his own background. He's estranged from his mother, his father is dead, and Anushka is the only family he has. It's Sophie who's obsessed with the apartment, for him his aunt is the only connection to where he came from and where he's going. 

For her part, Hajar has nothing to really gain by sticking with this assignment, and her boss knows it. She's reputed to be the best caregiver at the agency, so there's no doubt she could get another client easily. She perseveres, standing by Anushka through her tantrums and health issues (as the doctor says, even a hypochondriac gets sick). Of all the people in her life, Anushka believes that Hajar is the only one without an agenda. There's no doubt that the move is meant to be punitive: more to get Greg and Sophie to split than to really reward Hajar. But the affection she feels for the young woman is real.

The underlying tension nagging at both Anushka and Greg is that the world she knew is dying, if it's not dead already, and the world he is inheriting is one of dislocation and loneliness. Anushka holds on to vestiges of their Russian Orthodox faith, which he is totally divorced from. He's not an atheist, per se, but doesn't believe he's capable of knowing if there's a God or not. As for religion, he isn't against it, but sees it as keeping people apart. 

Hajar identifies as French, since she was born in Paris, and has never been to North Africa. It's not French as Anushka or Greg understand it. The old lady remembers the decorum, high life and glamor of an earlier age. Her roots are Russian, her bearing regal, with all that submerged into her perceived identity of what a Frenchwoman is supposed to be. That she scoffs at Hajar's claim to be French isn't just, or even primarily, about race. It's about a disconnection with the main stream of French history and culture, both high and pop, that causes the perceived rift. Anushka points to her drab cloths, head scarf and light makeup as proof that she's "not even trying" to assimilate. 

Greg, in spite of living there for four years, still has the idealism of a tourist gaping at the scenery. Hajar is the new reality: she wears a hijab, believes in her faith, but still questions. She agrees with Greg that we can't know with certainty that there is a God, but every so often she sees signs, such as his kindness, that points her in the affirmative direction. She has ambitions, and is putting off marriage while not openly rebelling against her parents' traditional ways. She sees her brother enjoying more freedom than she does, especially in the romance department, and silently ponders the inequity. An old world is dying, but the new world being born is uncertain, for both groups. 

Hajar's pregnancy is the coming together of the two worlds, to create something new as the old dies away. Earlier, Anushka reveals to Hajar that her son died tragically years before. She remembers the violet Paris dusk, and how she connects that unique phenomenon with his death. The final scene shows Hajar, heavy with child, sitting in a chair with Greg standing behind her. Her hair is flowing, and he, now bearded, is wearing one of his ancestor's smoking jackets (looking very Romanoff, if you will). As they gaze out the window at the sunset, Anushka admires them from the door. Holding a candle, she retreats to anther room, a look of contentment on her face. She places the candle down, blows it out, and moves out of frame, leaving us with an image of the leaded window, through which the sky turns a deep violet.

In typical Weiner style, he drops hints throughout the program that only make sense in hind sight (which makes a second viewing almost a must). We have these over arching themes of dislocation, existencial angst and, cultural shift coupled with quitter touches of personal longing. Sophie makes it very clear she wants no part of having children, they're too much of a buzz kill. Greg never protests, but through looks and glances we know he's not on board: he obviously loves children, isn't totally sold on the materialistic pleasure seeking life, but sticks with Sophie anyway. Anushka's vicious attack on Sophie's self imposed sterility isn't just meant to be hurtful for its own sake, but reflect her own disappointment that the family is dying off and there will be no one to carry on the name. She would give anything to have her son back, and along with him the hope of future progeny. Her attachment to Greg isn't some sort of quasi Oedipal perversion, as Sophie insinuates. They are blood. They are the last of a long line, of a dead and dying world, and until the end Anushka is bitter about it. 

That is until the final scene. The sky turning violet in this case signals a death (Anushka's off camera?) but also a birth. An old world is dying, but a new one is being born. There is still uncertainty. Will these two cultures be able to, not simply co-exist, but join together to form something new and stable? We don't know, but we have hope. As long as there is life, and openness to future generations, there will always be hope.

While the Romanoffs doesn't have the flash of Mad Men, it does have at least a bit of the sizzle. Weiner is one of the few out there asking real questions about the impact of culture, heritage and, religion on our individual and collective identity. My guess is that this is going to have a limited viewership, but my hope is that it's enough to keep getting him offers to make more of these explorations. 

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