The following are my views on the five episodes aired so far of the weekly Amazon miniseries The Romanoffs. Each captured my collective attention.
Episode 1 – THE VIOLET HOUR
The title refers to the colour of the sky at an inopportune moment in time when the lead protagonist Anushka ( Marthe Keller) experienced loss of a loved one, as she relates in the opening episode of the miniseries. This is the episode that tips its hat to one person’s pride in her ancestry and the riches that it has afforded her for most of her living days. In that sense, the shadow of the Romanovs is inescapable and direct for her.
However, as much as she harps on the idea of the line continuing with her caring nephew Greg ( Aaron Eckhart, who this generation most famously knows as the scarred Gotham D. A Harvey Dent from The Dark Knight), she is no saint wallowing in the ennui of old age and unpredictability of mortality. She is a sworn racist who bats not a single eyelid while launching her invectives at anyone not suitable to her high standards, least of all those who serve her, be it the Indian doctor at the hospital or her litany of rotating caretakers tending to this surly single woman living in her moth balled apartment in tony Paris.
In comes the kindly Hajar ( a triumphant Ines Melab) and of course all hell breaks loose. She is a Muslim in a hijab, so obviously Anushka finds in her a formidable target and in times where the minority community of France is definitely reeling in xenophobic environs owing to several closely orchestrated terrorist attacks such as in Nice a year ago and at the stadium hosting an American rock band, it hits home to anyone or any provenance impacted by such tempers. In her employer’s barbs, Hajar puts up a calm front as part of her training as a nurse so the forbearance is a professional prerequisite, a personal trait and to me a timely and perhaps timeless illustration of how the white WASPish sentiment has to be endured by the the ‘others’ in a society which gives them a roof and livelihood but neither the dignity nor status as equals. It’s what I call the servile ‘othering’ of those deemed to be on the lower scales owing to their region, social standing and current status. The immigrants’ voice and that of the female in the workplace all coalesce here seamlessly and Ines is a wonderfully understated inhabitor of Hajar’s soul. But slowly and steadily her dignity pays off and left with nobody to pay heed to her and defeated somehow by the steely resolve of her caretaker, Anushka initiates a thaw of her own accord , mixing her dormant maternal instincts with the hauteur of an aristocrat who will condescend and yet somehow find her way as a decent human being. You have to watch this quietly effective transformation that benefits the blossoming of a strong female bonding; it underlines the humanity at the center of human interaction. I also feel the thrust on human interaction is supreme in general , capable of breaking through thickets of unwanted prejudice and this comes out strongly here.
The other parallel here is that of the American bred Greg and his partner Sophia (Louise Bourgoin) who run a nondescript hotel which had once seen glories of hospitality in the city of love and both are intent on inheriting Anushka’s legacy by dint of money and property. You see, everybody is reminiscent/ reflective of the way things were and in coming out of a strictly bourgeois background, want to have a shot at the affluence of a kindred. The writing team presents them as people who do not pretend to hide their flaws but the goodness in them gets a shot as they are upfront as in the case of Anushka and we never suspect her to be violently racist just like Greg is naturally charming and caring and only in his desires to settle down with Sophie and be financially stable does he agree to wait for his aunt to bestow her inheritance to her favourite. The layered writing attests to that. There is an instance of a Cinderella like trapping here in the case of Hajar being dressed up in royal refinery by Anushka as their relationship blooms with mutual understanding but the natural rhythm of the tale never misses a beat. I knew in my heart there will be a silent moment like when the elderly Anushka takes Hajar’s hands before going to sleep, Hajar’s beauty will be acknowledged by the former and Greg and Hajar will get to develop a rapport, her simplicity melding with his amity. This predictability is not a weakness here.
Of course, the ending may be too much of an idyllic way to conclude but the realism, poignancy of it all is convincingly portrayed till then. The Violet Hour then amasses sombre hope as the idea of the Romanov line prevailing beyond Anushka comes to fruition as she, Hajar and Greg come into the center of a well rounded trinity, in the silhouetted final shot. There may be no ready solution to the class consciousness and racial superiority in us but stretching our limits can help by way of compassion.
The conversational quality of the script is astute, au natural and points out the lengths at which our innate goodwill overpowers our flaws; only if we are willing to let the former eclipse the latter. I took away all these facts from the unraveling of the script on screen. It also has the beautiful feel, look and unobtrusive cadences of European/ French arthouse cinema since it is set in Paris.
In all, THE VIOLET HOUR is an engrossing hour and a half, full of heartfelt moments and biting commentary on the way race and class are internalized in us.
Some other thoughts :
** Anushka saying, ” it’s like Calcutta in here” while in the crowded hospital room.
** Hajar telling Greg she was born and brought up in Paris and hence legitimately French and contrasting his idea of France as a paradise with a more practically pronounced,
“do you know what America means to the rest of the world?” even as she leaves her conservative cocoon to fall in love. Their moments of conversational bonhomie around cafes and the Seine are priceless.
** the fact that Anushka is equally vicious on her white employees too such as the Polish one she eventually fires. Also when she goes on a racist tirade about the supposed historical facts of Russian troops defeating Islamic forces in battles of yore. It goes on to show her deep seated idea of racial superiority. Hajar rebukes her with a line about her knowing her history well to which Anushka replies that she had the best tutors. So Hajar doesn’t take it lying down either.
** when Hajar looks at her brother outside the shop he is employed in courting a girl, reflecting silently on her own empty love life perhaps and the bus/ subway ride home. Glimpses of her working class family and comfortable but modest flat.
**Anushka is a common name in India too, quite like Natasha. This reminds me of the cordial ties India and Russia have maintained over years on end, starting with their love for our cinema.
Episode 2 – THE ROYAL WE
This episode is all about questions of existence and lust overwhelming a young generation and how despite having the best of everything in our lives, a lack of control and impulsive decisions wreak havoc on an established order of normalcy. In the bargain, we end up adding insult to our own self inflicted injuries. The gender dynamics of male ego and the tender fealty to a marital relationship by the female – an established social reality – finds representation here and we read in between the lines to find the complexity at the center of this sombre telling. The material comforts are there and still we grope at the unattainable to stroke some irrational idea of joy flirting with danger.
Also here Michael Romanoff ( Corey Stoll) is clearly oblivious of his ancestry as he is of his relationship with wife Shelly ( Kerry Bishe). He has a deep seated void resting in him. He chooses to overlook the good things for an inexplicable idea of toying with the other side and the writing achieves a level of melancholy and clarity that is well established. So while the wife explores herself on a cruise trip dedicated to Romanov descendants exclusively all alone and experiences joy and simplicity of that feeling, the man, while committing to jury duty, courts another married woman Michelle ( Janet Montgomery) and engages in an affair with her, choosing to not go on the trip and then extending the verdict of the case to reach one final destination- lust. The wife will never be enough for the typical males of our world.
Contrast this with the sweet bond Shelly strikes with Ivan (Noah Wyle) and chooses to not let this friendship trespass its limits, although there’s a clear attraction, offsetting her initial confusion and loneliness about being on a couples trip alone with the radiance of rejuvenation, ably reflected in Kerry’s smile and overall persona. Both are oblivious of the other’s experience and this distance central to so many marriages is realized with tact and care for details and atmosphere. Her flush of joy as she shares photographs from the trip is in sharp opposition to his weary smiles and disinterest. There are perhaps no equals in this partnership of two. His guilt is on the other side of her pure heart. I found this exploration admirable.
The script maintains a level of simplicity in evincing Michael’s mental conundrums which he himself paves way for, chasing something for the thrill of it which threatens the sanctity of a marriage ; a marriage that suffers due to his own non communication. The ending moments trace the way couples grow increasingly vindictive when the mind is set on other transgressive gears and this sense of danger makes Michael and Shelly stand at a precipice, quite literally in this case. He cannot leave his obsession for another woman while she discovers that hope comes with a high risk factor. This tilt towards forging an illicit relationship is very much evocative of the Pete / Beth coupling in season 5 of Mad Men since here too it ends in discomfiture and a broken end for the man. Engrossing and complex, with no pat resolutions and great performances. The end comes abruptly but is an instance of closure for Shelly, in the offbeat style of the best short fiction.
Some other thoughts :
** watching the couple’s therapy sessions, I caught a Don and Betty hangover for millennial times as Betty undertook individual sessions in Mad Men. The difference being that at least this couple communicates and has learnt to loosen up and smile. Only if the Drapers had tried to make amends similarly. So this is kind of a generational progression.
** During a later therapy session, Shelly tells him that she understands his inhibited nature after having witnessed the proud but internally damaged Romanoffs on the cruise so it’s an extension of his roots. It’s a simplistic reading, you may think but is sincerely conveyed by her out of concern and a hope for mending a marriage on the rocks; a bond rocked not by any infighting but deathly silence on the part of Michael.
**John Slattery’s cameo as he narrates the Romanoffs’ violent highpoints on the cruise befuddles Shelly even as it is lionized by the others – mostly elderly patrons. Bishe as Shelly is the picture of humility.
** the older couples are standoffish, judging and distancing Shelly who clearly is not part of an elite background. The Romanoff surname-her marital one – bears a shadow over her like Draper’s did on Betty in Mad Men.
** when Shelly is coming down the staircase on the cruise, a similarly shot image of Betty from the season third series premiere of Mad Men comes to mind. Also if you close your eyes and especially listen to Corey, you will feel they are like modern day incarnates of the Drapers. These parallels are good for evoking a sense of Mathew Weiner and his team’s approach to sophisticated storytelling.
** Michael runs an establishment that helps kids gain admission to colleges, especially Ivy League ones, as a memorable scene with a Harvard bound guy shows. The idea of thwarted promise is complete when Michael tells him he can’t help the boy owing to his low scores.
** finally, the Blondie song THE TIDE IS HIGH, one of the most popular tunes ever, playing in the background as Shelly meets Ivan on the cruise. Her moments spent on the cruise exemplify sheer joy.
The episode title is ironic to me as the ‘we’ never materializes for the couple ; the two have separate, disparate trajectories. The ‘royal’ part is ambiguous as well. At the end of the episode, Michael’s self destruction made me ask myself, “is there ever going to be a cure for toxic male ego?”
I knew I was shouting at /into a void at best then.
I will write about the remaining three episodes aired tomorrow as I feel this covers solid ground and since the first two episodes released together, it’s a good joint declaration of my own thoughts here.