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Ewan McGregor proves exceedingly appealing as 'A Gentleman in Moscow'


This is FRESH AIR. In the new TV series "A Gentleman In Moscow," Ewan McGregor plays a Russian count who's put under house arrest after the Russian Revolution. Based on the 2016 novel by Amor Towles, the show begins streaming on Paramount+ today and then is televised Sundays on Showtime. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that it's a light series about dark things.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Nearly 250 years after we kicked out the British monarchy, Americans can't get enough of the aristocracy. We devour "The Crown" and "Downton Abbey," obsess over Kate Middleton's health and Prince Harry's marriage and find vampires extra sexy because they're nobly born. This fascination helped make a bestseller of "A Gentleman In Moscow," Amor Towles' sleekly tooled novel about an exceedingly appealing Russian aristocrat after the 1917 Russian Revolution. A romanticized fable about a grimly realistic era, it's been adapted into a TV series starring the exceedingly appealing Scottish actor Ewan McGregor.

The show was created by Ben Vanstone, who was behind the reboot of "All Creatures Great And Small." He uses this brutal period as a backdrop for an easy to swallow tale about a decent but frivolous man who's deepened by being cut off from his life of privilege. MacGregor plays Count Alexander Rostov, a literate, beautifully mannered bachelor with a connoisseur's knowledge of wine, a dandy's immaculately cut suits and a moustache about which he's quite vain.

His story begins in 1922, when the Bolsheviks sentence him - implausibly, it must be said - to lifelong house arrest in Moscow's luxurious Hotel Metropol. Although he lives under the baleful gaze of a secret policeman named Osip, played by Johnny Harris, this isn't exactly the gulag. Despite his small quarters, he eats nightly in the hotel's elegant restaurant, whose cellar stocks his adored Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Over the next three decades, the count befriends a young girl, Nina, who grows into an avid communist and reunites with his radical college friend Mishka played with Dostoevskian fervor by Fehinti Balogun. He also gets involved with a wise up actress Anna Urbanova. That's a nifty Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who boots him out of her bed with the same imperious haste with which she invited him in.

As the passing years unleash famine, propagandistic lies and Stalinist terror, most of it invisible inside the hotel, he finds himself doing things he could never have imagined. He becomes a waiter in the hotel restaurant and starts looking after a little girl, Sofia, whose parents have been shipped off to a camp. Here, talking to the Stalin-admiring Nina, he offers a parable about the moths in Manchester, England.


EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Alexander Rostov) For thousands of years, the peppered moth had white wings with black speckles and was perfectly camouflaged against the bark of the silver birch trees. Naturally, there were aberrations - moths with pitch-black wings. They were quickly snapped off the trees by birds before they had a chance to mate. In the late 19th century, when Manchester became crowded with factories, soot covered all the buildings and trees, and the white-winged moth found itself exposed and picked off, while the black-winged moths thrived. In less than a century, the black-winged moth, which had made up 10% of the moth population, now made up over 90%, and the white-winged moth, well, found itself in the minority.

BEAU GADSDON: (As Sofia) So?

MCGREGOR: (As Alexander Rostov) Used to take generations for a way of life to fade. Under current circumstances, we must acknowledge that the process can occur in the blink of an eye.

BEAU: (As Sofia) Like Darwin says, adapt or die.

POWERS: Over the course of the show's eight episodes - in truth, six would have been tighter and stronger - the count does adapt. He becomes fast friends with the hotel's caretaker, bartender and kitchen staff, people he would once have treated politely as lessers, and he learns what it means to be responsible for a child. Even as he opens himself up to new things, he also tries to civilize his overseer, Osip, by giving him "Les Miserables" and showing him Hollywood movies.

While anyone who believes in the revolution is shown to be fatally wrong, The Count remains aristocratic in the finest sense of the term. The show doesn't really get into the ways that The Count's genial urbanity was made possible, because men of his class lived off the labor of impoverished serfs. Such protective fondness for the count might register as obtuse, were it not for McGregor's charming performance. He imbues this entitled man with wit, warmth and joie de vivre, qualities that drive the Bolsheviks crazy but make us like him. To my surprise, as one who grew up in a small, Midwestern town, I wound up identifying with a Russian aristocrat who discovers how to live more fully by watching his comfortable world get blown apart.

BIANCULLI: John Powers reviewed the new TV series "A Gentlemen In Moscow." It begins streaming today on Paramount+ and premieres on Showtime this Sunday. Coming up, another of today's TV streaming premieres. I review the new two-part Apple TV+ documentary about Steve Martin. This is FRESH AIR.


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John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.