Review: There's no resisting new series, 'A Gentleman in Moscow'

The series is based on Amor Towles' bestselling novel.

It sounds like heavy-going. But it's just the opposite. "A Gentleman in Moscow," the eight-part series streaming on Paramount+/Showtime revels in laughter and tears, flying high on the buoyant brilliance of Ewan McGregor as a Russian Count stripped of his title and forced to live in a hotel attic while 30 years of tumultuous, totalitarian history pass outside.

Based on the beloved 2016 bestseller by Amor Towles, the series stars McGregor as Count Alexander Rostov, an aristocrat who's been imprisoned since 1922 as an enemy of the state.

Some prison. Despite his cramped quarters in Moscow's plush Metropol Hotel, the Count is allowed the highborn pleasures of fine wine, gourmet dining, pampered barbering, sexual intimacies and lobby gossip about political unrest that stems from Lenin to Stalin and Khrushchev.

The catch? If the Count sets one foot outside, he will face a firing squad.

Only a poem the Count wrote in praise of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution stalled his execution. The irony is he didn't write it. The poet is his former university friend Mishka (Fehinti Balogun), who attributed his work to the Count to save him from execution.

Over the years, the Count goes from a prisoner in a gilded cage to a waiter who glories in the opulent past as Moscow erases every trace of cultural superiority. To level the playing field, labels are removed from bottles in the famed Metropol wine cellar. And yet the Count remains loyal to Mother Russia, until he sees patriotic ideals corrupted by a criminal mindset.

The book, which is fiction set against real events, has been criticized for romanticizing the horrors of the Soviet regime by confining the action to the swank environs of the Metropol. Look closer. Like the Oscar-winning film "The Zone of Interest," which kept Nazi crimes at a remove, "A Gentleman in Moscow" only intensifies the unseen terror that's just outside.

How does the Count maintain his cool composure in the face of such pressure? "If I take it seriously," he says, "I could fall into a dark despair." Cheers to McGregor for showing the conflict roiling inside this smiling fugitive from another era.

Still, in its early stages, the series seems more merry than menacing as the Count befriends Nina (Alexa Goodall), a precocious young hotel guest who mischievously slips him a skeleton key for every door in the hotel, including a rooftop where he gulps at the forbidden fresh air.

Later, the Count flirts outrageously with the willowy Russian screen star Anna Urbanova, sensationally played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, McGregor's real wife -- they met on Season 3 of "Fargo." Their acting teamwork brings depth to their characters and to the series.

When the adult Nina shows up at the Metropol, announcing she's about to follow her husband to the prison camps in Siberia, she leaves the Count in charge of her only child, Sofia (Billie Gadsdon), who becomes the Count's daughter by default.

It's here where showrunner Ben Vanstone skips padding things to reflect McGregor's world-class charm (an understandable temptation) and zeroes in on the Count's education in humanity.

There's irony in the Count forging close bonds with the working class, from seamstress Marina (Leah Harvey) to head waiter Andrey (Lyes Salem). He even tries to understand Osip (Johnny Harris), an officer of the secret police who enlists the Count as a spy.

How does this gentleman in Moscow champion the proletariat without betraying his passion for taste, refinement and intellectual challenge?

That's the crux of the tale.

The final two episodes, alive with suspense, lead to a bittersweet ending. Sentimental? Maybe. But there's no resisting a series that honors a man who forgoes ideology to follow the dictates of his heart.