Thwarted individuality – that’s the term that best describes people who are at the center of THE ROMANOFFS. They are privileged, good looking, economically and educationally gifted specimens of humanity and the team behind the show does a great job at dissecting the minutiae that gnaws at them. Some get a hold of their real selves while others come out questioning their place within their own culture. With that, I briefly take a look at the other three episodes aired in its weekly run apart from the first two that I published today. As viewers, we need to savour each moment, every pause, nudge and look at the internalizations that each of these three tales have to provide us. Again, our looks in the mirror and silent introspections give us the space to reflect and arrive at the best resolutions and the performers here brilliantly convey a lot without the baggage of wordplay. That’s the prowess of the writing and direction, approximating real life with an attention to every single detail that counts and completes these individual tales.
Episode 3- HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE
This is by far one of the best interpretations of a short fiction tale I have witnessed in recent times as it leaps across genres and yet despite the absurd humour and flashes of the supernatural, reality is kept intact, with a flourish unique to its storytelling.
As a numero uno actor Olivia ( Christina Hendricks, the eternal Joan from Mad Men ) arrives in the nocturnal depths of interior Austria to can a miniseries on the Romanovs, particularly the juiciest bits leading to their assassination by the Bolsheviks, the film within a film scenario works wonders from the get go. She is being directed by an iconic actress turned director Jacqueline ( the great Isabelle Huppert who I had seen in Elle on the same streaming service that now hosts this show) and pretty soon real and reel merge in what is a study of psychologies, artistic temperaments and the pains, idiosyncrasies and quirks that go into sculpting great works of art that you and I savour without perhaps knowing the behind the scenes flipside where status matters little. Fragile egos and Machiavellian grip on production run helter skelter then and watching this episode, I am reminded of every figure of authority who displayed eccentric tinges sharpened by their brilliance, a mixture of this and that, making it impossible for me to guess just where to put my fingers at even though judgement is not part of the ensemble of moods and experiences. Jacqueline exemplifies that as the director running the show, turning Olivia, an accomplished and loved performer, to less than an ingenue owing to her auteur tricks and notorious methods to achieve unblinkered realism.
It’s interesting to note how this inward look by those who made this episode disseminates personal stakes for everyone involved. How the other reality occasioned by filmmaking seeps seamlessly into our own. How the real and the created reality or one of imagination fuse and how the separation between both becomes erratic and difficult for everyone, especially the actor interpreting another flesh and blood human being, particularly one who is not a mere figment of imagination but a historical figure. The complex layers all go into making HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE haunting, meditative and nightmarish.
The method behind the madness idea is taken to extremes by the director here and the lead actor Samuel (Jack Huston). Again, the contrarian viewpoints about method acting reaches a fever pitch. It’s to Matthew Weiner’s credit as writer and director that his restraint and that of his team balances the multiplicity of images portrayed and in turn interpreted by us. For pure viewing pleasure too this installment takes the cake for its originality.
A sense of the alienation of working in an offbeat, foreign environment too pervades Olivia’s turn here as do little touches of female bonding, the idea of a great actor perhaps being a terrible director, limits of creative expression, casual hints of male ego and its resultant autonomy, power invested in financiers behind a project, consensus as a binding concept even for a mega star and the way the imposture of artistic delivery is closely aligned with the heights of performative finesse. The sense of darkness, light and shadow, distance and close ups recreate the techniques of the film within a film structure. Then there is the touch of the ghostly and shadow of the Romanov history, brutal and unsparing, that arrests the team. You have to watch it to know what I mean. Right through the unexpected ending, it tantalises us and leaves us with questions about the very nature of creation. Besides that, Hendricks, Huppert, Huston, Mike Doyle, Paul Reiser all are perfectly suited here. Nothing is what it seems and trust me, life is like that even at the top echelon.
Some other thoughts :
** SWEET DREAMS, the iconic number by EURYTHMICS, opens the episode and the refrain is used with the goodnight greeting here quite a few times, making way for possibilities of what and what isn’t plausible and belies Olivia’s lucidity.
** The hotel, with its prominent red interiors and dim yellow lighting, makes it open to be set in any period now or twenty to thirty years back and gave me the creepy SHINING hangover. Also when the girl enters Olivia’s room at night; maybe it was a hallucination, part of a dream and informed by the sense of dread from internalizing the Romanov bloodbath. The scene where Jacqueline is almost ‘possessed’ inverts dynamics of our beliefs further. Writer Henry James came to mind.
So when Olivia wanders around the woods and looks at men dressed as Bolsheviks, the reality of the situation is too much for her and we keep asking ourselves, “are they real skinheads out to jeopardize this production, owing to an allegiance to the Bolshevik ideal?” The weight of history sneakily makes an appearance, tying in with the horrifying climax where limits of real and reel blur.
** An instance of Samuel recreating a sequence of assault on Olivia from the script, that is a trespass of the work ethic on set, made me hark back to the toxic levels of method that scarred the lead actress of Bernando Bertalucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, as that scene was one centring around a disturbingly sexual situation. Ethics of improvisation and of the workplace make ample sense in the Me Too era.
** plus when the director is exceptionally hard on Brian to make him sink into his role and the humorous situation that arises when he ends the earnest scene with a song.
In short, HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE is unpredictable, a melange of moods and is very effective, satirising the act and passage of creation by hitting a creative bull’s eye in the realization here. It’s an all rounder for me but nothing beats the raw impact of the climax.
Episode 4- EXPECTATION.
This episode is so rich in its internalized gravitas of narration that I feel I should talk about only the salient features of it. It’s a personal favorite of mine too, picking one individual and her distinct life script and bringing a straightforward juxtaposition of different conversations and interior shots to the mix.
Amanda Peet is Julia, a soon to be grandmother who contemplates upon the one grave issue of her daughter’s true parentage and her bond of permanence with Daniel ( John Slattery, the inimitable Roger Sterling of Mad Men) that has kept her up over a single day and in the loop for twenty years and more. The restraint is indicative of the way life moves on and functions in all its diurnal rhythms and the past becomes an ember in the larger cauldron of the present. But ever so subtly, that ember gives us a little burning sensation. This is the truth that nags at Julia.
Also I loved how it employed the stream of consciousness technique where events transpire over a single day; the fact its exploration is rooted in the concerns of a middle aged woman who comes from a tony background and has her soulmate not in her husband but another male kindred is reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway, the book by Virginia Woolf that epitomized stream of consciousness and smooth transitions the visual medium harnesses so well.
The performances are spot on, New York is captured beautifully and the idea of the past enroaching upon the present is an intimate part of just Julia who smiles, has breakfast with her daughter, spends some moments of bliss and tension with Daniel, goes to work, takes the subway and discovers a physical scare by the end of the day. The normal coming and going pattern is ably captured.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE EPISODE :
** her opening scene with her pregnant daughter Ella( Emily Rudd) is priceless, her emphasis on work going against her millennial kid’s old fashioned views on easy privilege which the latter doesn’t mince words about. Class, responsibility, privilege enter the fray and this generational mirroring of two women is exactly how some tensed conversations proceed with parents and children.
** the part in the open restaurant where Julia mouths the winning lines, ‘fu…. g millennials’ demonstrates the arc of her personality on a given day. It’s effortlessly humorous.
** the term ‘Grandma’ is tossed around by those who meet her – a term of endearment for her incoming role, illustrating her concern for her daughter who can deliver anytime, the reality of age catching up with her ( I know Amanda Peet, who is actually 48 looks so much younger to look 50 plus) as also the secret she has kept neatly hidden. This milestone works as a gentle trigger in her, not from some point of vanity but more of a realisation.
** Mary Kay Place and Michael O’ Neill who play her in laws give her a good piece of their mind about the joys of nurturing grandchildren which is divested from pressures from back in the day when they were first time parents. It’s a practical, enlightened heart to heart about turning on a new leaf.
** her interaction with Gary Beethoven( an excellent David Ferry) – her subject at the institute for the homeless where she works – is wonderfully shot and written, with the close door signifying her need to confess and doing so in the presence of a stranger who may not even grasp her earnestness is a welcome touch.
** the inversion of the confessional scene with her husband Peter ( Jon Tenney) is sensible since otherwise it would have betrayed the fabric of realism so firmly put in place here. The heartbreaking and liberating idea of staying close to our loved ones is brought to the fore.
** finally, the beauty of the tender epiphany that binds mother and daughter in the end. Ambiguity is a blessing here as also a tint of clarity.
Last but not least, Amanda Peet’s eyes speak volumes and clearly enhances the inherent charm of EXPECTATION.
I will write about the recent fifth episode later as I feel the above written words should be enough to read and understand the quintessence of the series.