Ewan McGregor is A Gentleman In Moscow

David B Morris
9 min readApr 9, 2024

A Brilliant Historical Retelling of An Era Where A European Revolution Made The World Worse for Everyone

Last month in a different context I mentioned the publication Jacobin. I’d seen a few times on other subjects online but it is only recently that I learned that it was an American Marxist publication.

I am aware, given the nature of so much of society these days, that capitalism, democracy and so much how America works has been under assault from the left as much as the right. I’m well aware of the popularity of ‘socialist Democrats’ such as Bernie in the Senate and the Squad in the House and I’ll be honest their politics have always struck me as a fiction more than realistic. But the idea of a publication that exists that is still devoted to pitching Marxism — well even the fact that it only has 50,000 subscribers still makes my mind go into scary visual places.

I imagine that Jacobin sticks closely to the anti-American, anti-imperial mythology that so many leftists are devoted to and lives in that reality. But it’s the ‘Marxist’ label that troubles me because even with all the problems of the issues involving the one percent and Wall Street, I’m genuinely astonished anyone would even now believe that communism, with or without a capital C, is a viable option. I realize the left loves to rewrite history to make America the villain and I’m all too aware of the horrors that our country committed in the name of fighting the Red Menace during the Cold War. What I will never go along with is the implications that communism was harmless or the underlying feeling by many on the left that it would work if it was done correctly.

I don’t deny the idea of European imperialism being responsible for the troubles of the world today. But I’ve noticed a remarkable absence of the mentions the many Communist infiltrations that happened in the immediate aftermath of World War II that somehow. I’ve heard dozens of horror stories about American intervention across the globe in the Middle East and Africa. I’ve seen almost none about the invasion of Poland, Greece and Turkey, or the many crises we faced over Germany and Berlin over forty years that at least once might have led to World War III. Are there still people out there who genuinely believe that Stalin was benevolent and that Cuba and China were prime examples of Communism working perfectly? If there are, I don’t want to meet them — but I have a feeling I might have in passing online.

And that often makes me wonder about some of the writings in Jacobin. Do they all attack America and European imperialism or do some write that the KGB was misunderstood? Do they argue that the gulags were more humane that Guantanamo? Do they say that no one tells you about the good things that men like Beria and Chou En-Lai did? I really don’t want to know.

And that’s before you get to the arts section which I hinted at in my piece on the Oscars. I saw some of the articles this ‘critic’ had written and when I tried to figure out what movies and TV this person might like I kept drawing a blank. The later works of Sergei Eisenstein when he was a tool of Stalin? Do they think that the limited series Chernobyl was a hack job on the Soviet Union? Do they see A Spy Among Friends as a hack job of their national hero Kim Philby? I can’t process it and maybe I shouldn’t.

These thoughts kept coming to mind when I was watching the first episodes of Showtime’s new limited series A Gentleman in Moscow which has received good to outstanding reviews from most critics but which I imagine Jacobin would consider fake news. It’s hard to argue with that judgment because it is propaganda for aristocracy — and it makes it very clear just how cruel the early days of the Soviet Union were.

Now I’ll acknowledge the end of the imperial families across Europe was what the twentieth century needed to move forward. (I have, for the record, a serious problem with The King’s Man an action film whose impetus for the film basically is the kind of propaganda that Jacobin could argue against. ) I’m not convinced that it was the best thing Russia. Considering its horrid history for the next century one wonders, like the title character, whether the old ways were the best. One could see Jacobin berating this movie for celebrating Russian aristocracy and demeaning the Communist Revolution. The problem is it’s very hard to see the events even in the first two episodes and argue that anything about the Revolution from the start was done with the best intentions.

The series centers on the former Count Rostov who we meet in 1921. He is one of the few remaining nobles still alive after the October Revolution that removed the Czar from power killed off most of the ruling class and ‘redistributed their wealth’. He has been the prisoner of a luxury hotel for the past four years and as the premiere begins, he is brought before a tribunal expected to be executed. To his shock, his life is spared and he is sentenced to lifetime imprisonment at the hotel. The ostensible reason for his survival is because a poem that seemed to be in favor of the revolution is favored by followers of Lenin. It becomes clear very quickly that is far from the only reason he is still alive.

Rostov returns to the hotel and is told in no uncertain terms by a man in a coat and beard who has yet to beg given a name that he must never leave this hotel “If you do, I’ll be waiting.” It seems certain this man is a member of the secret police that will come to fruition under Stalin, whose name comes up a few times — and is casually dismissed as an amateur.

Rostov continues to live his life as best he can. He dresses in his evening wear for every meal in the dining room, has his hair cut every day, even manages to take the fact that his possessions have been taken from him and he is in a room with no heat. The hotel staff is still in awe of him but the hotel manager is worried as he believes Rostov’s presence is a threat to his well-being and knows that things are going to get worse. This is made very clear in the first episode when one of Rostov’s few surviving nobles, who has been made to play violin for the party for decades, is humiliated and then shot outside the hotel, within days of trying to make a break for freedom.

The only ally Rostov has for certain in this hotel is Nina, who we meet a nine years old. She is the daughter of the hotel manager and is still young enough to be in awe of the old ways. She asks to hear tales of Rostov’s youth, learns about duels, wants to know stories about the nobility. She also has a passkey to the hotel that enables Rostov to move throughout it freely. Like all European hotels in fiction, there are secret passages leading all across the building. However, because Rostov is a gentleman, he doesn’t use them to spy on the guests but only to try and find his own freedom.

It may tell you everything you need to know about Rostov that he is played by Ewan McGregor. Before he became the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, he spent his youth playing working class and often criminal Englishmen, most famously in Trainspotting but just as well in Shallow Grave. He has played certain erudite figures in movies, most famously in Moulin Rouge. His transition to American movies has mostly involved films that were beneath him for the next decade, but in the 2010s he began to readjust his career with such undervalued masterpieces as The Ghost Writer, Beginners, and August: Osage County.

It took a while for him to get into the world of prestige TV but when he did he broke big in the incredible third season of Fargo. He played brothers Emmit and Ray Stussy who had spent twenty years in a feud in which the younger brother had convinced the older to trade their inheritance — a stamp for a car. One became a multi-millionaire and was wealthy and affluent, the other was a pot-bellied parole officer. It was one of the most incredible acting performances in an anthology series full of them and it was rewarding for McGregor professionally and personally. He won both a Golden Globe and a Critics Choice Award for Best Actor in a Limited Series (he lost the Emmy to Riz Ahmed for The Night Before in what was a very tough race to judge) and he met his future wife Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

McGregor has since spent as much time on television as he has the silver screen, winning an Emmy for his work in the title role as Halston and recreating his role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the self-titled mini-series which was nominated for an Emmy last year. Now he takes on a role which has aspects of all of the characters he has played on television for the past decade: there are elements of both gentleman and rogue in both aspects.

It might help matters that his wife also has a critical role as Anna, an actress who is a member of the party. “I’ve seen her movies,” Nina says. “They’re not very good.” Winstead and McGregor have appeared in several other projects together since Fargo (they were both in Birds of Prey) but this is the first time since then that they are playing lovers again.

Winstead’s career has not been much shorter than McGregor’s. She’s been acting since she was thirteen and had her first regular role in TV on the cult soap opera Passions at fifteen. Most of her films were unremarkable but she began to break through when she played John McLain’s daughter in the fourth Die Hard film. She is beloved for her work as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and has cult favorite for 10 Cloverfield Lane. Like her husband she’s spent much of the last decade in TV, most notably as the lead in the cult series Braindead and she also has a key role in a recent Star Wars limited series Ahsoka. Winstead has always been one of the most fascinating performers to watch over the last twenty years, attractive but not sexy in the way so many other performers are. There’s frequently a level of a lone wolf to most of the characters she plays, someone who likes to have sex but not relationships. This is true when she encounters the Count in the second episode and she takes on the position of the dominant personality. The Count is a member of the gentlemanly school, so he is taken by surprise when Anna takes the initiative in everything — including the bedroom.

The series is fascinating to watch not just because of the scenery and the music but because, like the hotel Rostov is trapped in, there are secrets behind everything. Rostov fled to Paris in 1913 but returned to Russia. We don’t yet know why or why he is still alive. We know it has something to do with his friend Mishka, who was a childhood friend and is now prominent in the party. But there was a conflict over Rostov’s sister and they became estranged. All of this has something to do with some reason Rostov seems to be punishing himself for, something that we get a sense of in vague flashes and dreams to Rostov’s youth but still don’t understand the full picture of.

I’m aware that A Gentleman in Moscow is based on a best selling novel that I didn’t read and that alterations have been made to the plot. For one thing in this version of the series Mishka is, well, a black Russian (play on words intended). I’m also aware that this in a sense a celebration of a way of life that so many people, including the ones who read Jacobin regularly, would dismiss as degrading communism. They’re the ones, ironically, who would need to see this series the most because it is them who we see in the early episodes arguing that the revolution will bring about the freedom and equality that these American Marxists believe is necessary. For them, much of what is going on in A Gentleman in Moscow is the lesson of what happens when ideals are run over by people who can manipulate them. We know all too well that things are going to get worse, not just for Rostov but everyone in this series. In a teaser for the next episode, Stalin is clearly in power and Rostov asks Mishka if this is the brave new world he hoped for. Mishka tries to wave him off: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” “No” Rostov reminds him, “it was burnt in one.” Rostov is speaking not just for his way of life but for everything Russia would undergo for the next century. Those so-called Marxists would do well to remember that before they talk of burning it all down.

My score: 4.25 stars.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.