Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in "A Gentleman in Moscow." 

Ewan McGregor as Count Rostov in "A Gentleman in Moscow."  Credit: Paramount+ with Showtime/Ben Blackall

LIMITED SERIES "A Gentleman in Moscow"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime; also streaming on Paramount+ with Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Count Alexander Rostov (Ewan McGregor) narrowly escapes the firing squad after a Soviet tribunal rules that because he wrote a poem in support of the glorious revolution, he will be put under house arrest instead. The place where he'll spend the next 30 or so years — it all takes place between 1922 and 1954 — is Moscow's Hotel Metropol, a faded beauty that has a first-rate wine selection and excellent menu. While he is not free to leave — under the pain of death, per his minder, Glebnikov (Johnny Harris) — friends like Mishka (Fehinti Balogun) come and go. He becomes particularly close (and personal) with a famous actress, Anna Urbanova (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Philosophical by disposition, the Count rues his circumstances, but makes the best of them. (A lingering question, by the way, did he actually write that poem?)

This eight-parter is based on Amor Towles' 2016 bestseller of the same name.


MY SAY Can a good (e.g. literary) book make a good (e.g. watchable) TV series? In principle, sure. In practice, not always and perhaps not even very often. “Shōgun '' is managing just fine for FX, but “All the Light We Cannot See” was a recent swing and miss for Netflix. That example seems more representative: Too much can go wrong between page and screen because what worked on the page can't quite find its way to that screen. This “Gentleman” adaptation just might be the perfect example.

Towles' acclaimed novel was about a to-the-manor-born Count whose life and outlook were set in sharp contrast to the human tragedy that was unfolding on a mass scale outside the Metropol. The kindhearted, supremely optimistic Rostov was almost entirely shielded from that world, which pretty much explained his sunny worldview. In the series, as in the book, old friends and new pass through the Metropol. The wine flows and the food is exquisite. A raconteur, Rostov entertains friends with stories and memories, and lightens their emotional burden with philosophical mot justes, such as “the surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness.”

Days pass into weeks, those into years. Life goes on in Club Fed much as it always has, and much as it always had for Rostov before house arrest.

Towles had a clever device in the book in the form of footnotes, which both fact-checked Rostov and offered a wide-angle onto Russian current events beyond the Metropol. Yeah — these might caustically point out — the boeuf bourguignon was slightly overcooked for dinner one night, but Stalin just slaughtered another million. Perspective, Rostov! Perspective!

Footnotes can't work on television, and are obviously dispensed with here. “A Gentleman' — the TV series — is then left with, and quickly overwhelmed by, just one point of view: You-know-who's.

Rostov happily prattles on about life, demands specific vintages, meets a beautiful and acclaimed actress, and eventually becomes a father figure, then adoptive father, to a young girl, Sofia (Beau Gadsdon). As Towles wrote, “the Count had opted for the life of the purposefully unrushed,” and his life is purposefully unrushed here, although he does become a member of the wait staff as the Nazis approach Moscow. Sure, he has his down moments — who doesn't? — but friends (and cognac) lift his spirits in the Metropol bar, which is sort of like Rick's Cafe Americain, where the Count is Rick.

 But unlike Rick, he has no real perspective on the world of Russia beyond these gilded walls, and under the circumstances becomes just another well-fed, well-lubricated, well-intentioned bore. The Metropol quickly becomes claustrophobic, and so does “A Gentleman in Moscow.”

BOTTOM LINE An inert, talky bore.

Top Stories

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months