Ewan McGregor is under house arrest in A Gentleman in Moscow

Ewan McGregor is under house arrest in A Gentleman in Moscow

By Shilpa Ganatra,
Wednesday, 3rd April 2024
Ewan McGregor plays Alexander Rostov, sitting at a writing desk in an attic
Alexander Rostov, played by Ewan McGregor (credit: Paramount+)
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The ambitious creators of A Gentleman in Moscow let their imaginations run riot, says Shilpa Ganatra

Imagine what it would be like to live full-time in a hotel. A step further: what would it be like if your life depended on it? That thought experiment may be the initial appeal of A Gentleman in Moscow and perhaps explains why the book has sold 4 million copies worldwide since its publication in 2016. Fans include Barack Obama, Tom Hanks – who cited it as one of his 10 favourite books of all time – and Queen Camilla. She recommended it as a lockdown read during the pandemic.

Now Amor Towles’s novel has been brought to life in a landmark drama for Paramount+ and US partner Showtime. As a calling card for Paramount+’s UK arm, which launched in June 2022, it was given a budget that was “expensive for the UK, but not as expensive as House of the Dragon”, says director Sam Miller (I May Destroy You, Luther). “Or The Crown,” adds showrunner Ben Vanstone (All Creatures Great and Small, The English Game).

“It was a really bold commission. There aren’t many things on TV that are so character-driven, and it eschewed the normal tropes of a lot of television. We didn’t approach it as a period drama. Our desire was to make a contemporary show that just happened to be set in Russia between the 1920s and 1950s,” says Vanstone.

The eight-part series follows the story of Count Alexander Rostov (played by Ewan McGregor) as he returns from Paris to a Moscow ruled by the Bolsheviks. Though the new regime is busy dismantling the aristocracy, he is spared execution provided he confines himself to the luxurious Hotel Metropol. So begins a new life within this gilded cage, as the Russia outside its doors radically changes and the Count discovers some surprising emotional truths about himself.

It’s a timely watch, as Russia’s authoritarianism grabs headlines with the invasion of Ukraine, the deaths of oligarchs and opponents, and rigged elections that have put Vladimir Putin in charge for a fifth term. House arrest was not uncommon in Soviet Russia.

“Russia has a history of these cycles of autocrats and dictators who make the countries around it, and the people of Russia, suffer,” says Vanstone. “What makes the show so relevant is that this is a story about humanity fighting against those systems and regimes.”

Miller adds: “The human resonance is a big aspect. I remember Amor explaining about how his desire was to examine chivalry, and the almost Victorian idea of gentlemanliness. One way to explore that is to set someone with those values against a regime that is without any kind of compassion, which was what seemed to happen after the Russian Revolution.”

The scale and ambition of the show is evident throughout, from its high­-calibre cast and team of creatives to its lavish production values.

In addition to Vanstone and Miller, the assembled team included Popcorn Storm Pictures’ Tom Harper (War & Peace, Wild Rose), Moonriver’s Xavier Marchand and producer Lis Steele (Riviera, Cold Feet).

When it comes to adapting ambitious novels, television doesn’t always get it right. Series such as Gormenghast and last year’s version of Great Expectations got poor reviews, yet War & Peace and Normal People prove that small-screen adaptations can add distinct value.

Nina, played by Alexa Goodall (credit: Paramount+)

With A Gentleman in Moscow, don’t expect a faithful retelling of the book: Vanstone’s teleplay reimagines the source material to work within the episodic structure and time constraints of TV serial drama.

“In many ways, it’s incredibly freeing to have a novel that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to adaptation,” he says. “If you’ve got something that’s pure plot or very neat, it’s just copying. Whereas, if you have a novel that has room for your own interpretation, in some ways it’s easier.”

True to the book’s spirit, the series strikes an impressive balance between light and shade. In the first episode, we see the opulence of the hotel and the austerity of the Count’s sparse attic room. Then there’s the levity of the Count’s repartee with a 10-year-old hotel guest, closely followed by a brutal killing by the Bolsheviks. Even the convivial atmosphere of the hotel’s dining room is juxtaposed against the shadowy corners of the building and lurking spies.

Miller explains: “Very early on, Ben and I connected about not wanting to make something that was overly heavy or earnest. There’s a playfulness about the way Amor shaped the book that we wanted to capture. It deals with very serious things and very funny things, and very beautiful things, but it manages to cross all those boundaries. It’s not relentlessly bleak and it’s also not just a fairytale.”

Although Kenneth Branagh was announced as the Count in a development prior to Vanstone’s project, McGregor was this team’s chosen lead, and is an executive producer. He brings nuance to the role of the Count and ensures he is immediately likeable. Says Steele: “We were all thrilled when Ewan signed up because he brings such a humanity to the character. Being an aristocrat, he is aloof but also accessible and warm.”

Vanstone adds: “Ewan is an incredibly playful actor. The Count has a mischievousness to him as well as a natural charm. And Ewan’s got a twinkle, which really lends itself to the part.”

The supporting cast includes Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Fargo, Mercy Street), Leah Harvey (Foundation, Les Misérables) and Fehinti Balogun (Dune, I May Destroy You), all of whom deliver equally layered performances.

While the production was a tight operation to make the budget stretch further, “one aspect we didn’t skimp on was the design of the hotel. We knew it had to last for eight hours of television, and it always had to look like it was rich, lush and befitting for the Count to stay there,” Steele says.

As with The Crown and Downton Abbey, the on-screen opulence is likely to draw in viewers. From exquisite costumes to luxurious furniture, there is much to feast the eyes on. The set helps to show the passing of time from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Steele notes: “It was less about changing the structure of the sets and more about showing how props evolved – whether it’s a style of a telephone or lighting fixtures that become more modern.”

Surprisingly for a Russian period piece, filming took place across the north of England. Miller explains: “The walking scene from Red Square through to the Hotel Metropol was mostly shot in Bolton – it has these huge Victorian buildings and edifices that gave us the geometry we needed to make the walk feel real.

“A lot of VFX still had to be used. But, even if we had been able to shoot in Moscow, there isn’t that much we could shoot there because it’s the wrong period. So, it wasn’t as crazy an idea as it sounds to take Victorian Bolton and shape it into areas and streets near the Kremlin.”

A Gentleman in Moscow offers an alternative to the mystery thrillers that form the backbone of UK originals on Paramount+, such as The Castaways and The Ex-Wife. Paramount’s UK Deputy Chief Content Officer, Sebastian Cardwell, says: “We do lots of UK-based mystery thrillers, because there’s evidence you can get big numbers commissioning those. But you also need textural estate, and a show like A Gentleman in Moscow gives a bit of texture to cut against.”

Certainly, these series inhabit a unique space. “There’s so much TV that is brilliant, but which is very clearly a [particular] genre – a detective story or a murder or more of a salacious show,” says Vanstone. “But A Gentleman in Moscow is quite difficult to pigeonhole. Its greatest strength is its originality.”

A Gentleman in Moscow is on Paramount+.

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