Author Gill Paul reviews the Netflix series The Last Czars for Historia and finds that, despite its large budget and the presence of notable historians, the docudrama doesn’t quite work.
I’m a Romanov junkie and had high hopes for this brand-new six-part Netflix series. It’s clear from the trailer that serious money has been thrown at the story of Nicholas II’s ascent to the Russian throne and the mistakes he and his wife made that more or less assured their downfall.
The format of The Last Czars is a mixture of dramatisation, with lavish costumes and sets, alongside contemporary photographs and movie-reel footage, and talking heads, including Simon Sebag Montefiore, Dr Pablo de Orellano of King’s College London and Dr Philippa Hetherington of University College London. So far, so interesting…
A ‘mature content’ warning flashed on screen at the beginning, and I assumed it must refer to the violence associated with the Revolution and the brutality of the family’s execution in an Ekaterinburg basement. But no! Early on, the sex scenes begin. We see Nicholas and Alexandra undressing each other on their wedding night then writhing naked on the imperial bed.
And once Rasputin arrives on the scene, it turns into a shagfest, with orgies by the score. I almost feared they were going to have Rasputin and Alexandra humping against a palace wall, as satirists at the time portrayed. It stopped short of that, but did show her leaning her head on his shoulder and embracing him in ways the austere Alexandra, ever-conscious of her position, would never have countenanced.
In the final episode, it shows Maria, the tsar’s third daughter, caught stripping off with a guard in the Ipatiev House. This is based on a tiny footnote in history, which inspired a scene I include in my novel The Lost Daughter. The guard in question, Ivan Skorokhodov, is said to have brought Maria a birthday cake in June 1918. She went out to the passageway to thank him and was caught in what the commandant of the guards called “compromising circumstances”.
Maria was deeply religious, and a tsar’s daughter: at most, this might have involved a kiss. To portray her eager to have sex with a lower-class guard is taking several liberties too far. I’m sure Simon Montefiore would not have approved such a scene but you can imagine a studio exec looking at the original shooting script and saying “We need more sex. Where can we spice it up?”
I wish just a part of the budget they spent on glitzy palace sets, crown jewels, period cars and location filming in Vilnius, Lithuania and Rundale, Latvia, had been spent on better scriptwriters.
The dialogue is clunky and ‘on the nose’. “Telegram the head of the duma. Tell him he can have what he wants,” says Nicholas after the 1917 Revolution. And the F-word is used often: “We cannot afford any fuck-up,” says Yacob Yurovsky to his execution squad. I yearned for the quality of writing found in The Crown. The story of the Romanovs is tragic and compelling, and it’s been under-served by dramatists since the 1971 movie Nicholas and Alexandra.
On the whole, the history in The Last Czars is accurate, although the (Russian state-owned) Russia Beyond website lists its “48 most glaring mistakes”. Some characters have been stripped out, presumably to avoid over-complicating the story: this is particularly notable in the execution scene, where only Dr Eugene Botkin joins the family and not the other three servants we know were present.
I was also surprised that their Yurovsky claims to have been given the go-ahead by Lenin to execute the prisoners. The canny Lenin was careful to say no such thing. His grip on power was tenuous in July 1918 and he was afraid of the backlash that killing the royals might provoke, so was careful to keep his fingerprints well away.
As an introduction to the Romanov story, The Last Czars could be much worse. Viewers who come to it without much prior knowledge will learn a lot. The historical facts are so compelling, it’s hard to make them dull, and visually the dramatized bits are gorgeous.
Nicholas is portrayed by Robert Jack as a complete imbecile, who makes decisions based on whatever was said by the last person he spoke to. Alexandra (Susanna Herbert) is the stronger character, but even she falls under the spell of the hypnotic Rasputin (Ben Cartwright). An aside: Rasputin’s accent sounded Yorkshire/Lancashire to my ears, and that jarred – but not as much as the phony Russian accents of the Bolsheviks!
In the final analysis, the mixture of dramatisation, footage and talking heads didn’t work for me. I’d have preferred either a well-scripted drama or an in-depth documentary with intelligent analysis. Trying to combine them meant both were compromised. Shame! But if anyone from Netflix is reading, the rights to my two Romanov novels are still available…
Gill Paul has written two novels about the Romanovs: The Lost Daughter (2018 in the UK, 2019 in the US) and The Secret Wife (2016). She has also written about the family in her non-fiction book Royal Love Stories and in a number of newspaper articles.
Read Gill’s Historia feature about the last days of the Romanovs: Stockholm Syndrome in Ekaterinburg?
The Last Czars is available on Netflix from 5 July, 2019.
Supplied by author:
A 1916 cartoon showing Rasputin as puppet-master for Nicholas and Alexandra
Poster for the 1971 movie, based on Robert Massie’s book, starring Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman
Yacob Yurovsky, the commander of the guards responsible for killing Tsar Nicholas along with his family and four servants