Binge-r #148: The Last Czars + Disobedience

Binge-r #148: The Last Czars + Disobedience

Ra Ra Rasputin: Ben Cartwright (Rasputin) and Susanna Herbert (Alexandra) in  The Last Czars

Ra Ra Rasputin: Ben Cartwright (Rasputin) and Susanna Herbert (Alexandra) in The Last Czars


Streaming Service: Netflix

Availability: All six episodes now streaming

Netflix’s new docudrama about Russia’s fallen royal family answers the question: what would The Crown be like with hip historians added to the mix. Unfortunately the answer is that it would be piecemeal, insignificant, and stranded between formats. With six episodes that span from 1894, when the inexperienced Nicholas (Robert Jack) became Czar and married German princess Alexandra (Susanna Herbert), to 1918, when their family were executed by Lenin’s communists to safeguard the Russian Revolution, the show’s scope is already enlarged, but the hybrid format doesn’t magnify crucial moments, it flattens them.

From the first scenes the talking heads offer informative clarifications, but their fleeting input only allows for the simplest of opinions. At the same time using them to fill in the background leaves the scripted scenes unformed and fragmentary. A genuine dramatic narrative never takes hold – you’re told by the experts that Nicholas’ reactionary uncle Sergei (Gavin Mitchell) is brutish and uncaring, and that’s all his scenes convey. Documentaries have long used dramatic recreations to illustrate their subject, but by adding non-fiction to a grand period drama any sense of texture – despite the production budget – or character is compressed. It all zips along, and might be a decent primer, but there’s little that is new or illuminating.

The British production – posh accents for the aristocracy, broad for the peasants – is clichéd in getting behind the royal façade, settling for a passionate (if soft focus) sex life between the Czar and Czarina as a new take while acknowledging the Anastasia myth and giving plenty of time to Rasputin (Ben Cartwright), the Siberian shaman whose messianic faith healing claims gave him access to a family whose only son was a haemophiliac. The initial episodes push the same points: Nicholas had incredibly bad judgment, Alexandra was obsessively devoted to her family, and Rasputin was a talented chancer.

The format’s ill-fit is best demonstrated by author Douglas Smith metaphorically describing Rasputin as “a man who emits electricity from his fingertips”, but the comment is somehow set to a scene where the monk’s touch brings a farmer’s daughter to orgasm. Innovation be damned, this revolution needs to be put down.

Eternal Flame: Rachel Weisz (Ronit), Rachel McAdams (Esti) and Alessandro Nivola (Dovid) in  Disobedience

Eternal Flame: Rachel Weisz (Ronit), Rachel McAdams (Esti) and Alessandro Nivola (Dovid) in Disobedience


DISOBEDIENCE (Stan, 2017, 114 minutes): In this tense contemporary drama, set in the confines of an Orthodox Jewish community in London, desire has a physical force: it drags buried memories to the surface and draws people closer to what they want. On the death of her esteemed rabbi father, photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns from exile in New York, staying with her friend and father’s chosen successor, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who has married their mutual friend, Esti (Rachel McAdams). The Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Lelio (Gloria, and its recent American remake Gloria Bell) reveals so much that is unsaid with a camera that observes the characters with a tenderness they won’t allow themselves. Religious rituals are source of wonder and alienation, and the pull between community and the individual is harsh but somehow never grim (the score is flecked with celestial wonder). Dovid is never merely reduced to the controlling husband, and that makes the connection between Ronit and Esti all the more compelling.

New on Netflix: The Goonies (1985, 109 minutes) is still an aces children’s adventure – wide-eyed, daft, spectacular – instigated by Steve Spielberg in his carefree Amblin days; 300: Rise of an Empire (2014, 102 minutes) is a flagrant swords and sandals sequel notable mainly for the full tilt performance of Eva Green as a Persian admiral bringing florid vengeance to the ancient Greeks.

New on SBS on Demand: Fluent both in its humanism and its depiction of institutionalised savagery, Steve McQueen’s Academy Award-winning 12 Years a Slave (2013, 134 minutes), tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born black man kidnapped from America’s 19th century north and sold into southern slavery alongside Lupita Nyong’o in her breakthrough role.

New on Stan: With the unlikely backdrop of a murder trial, the French romantic drama Courted (2015, 94 minutes) stars Fabrice Luchini as a judge trying to rekindle his connection with Sidse Babett Knudsen’s juror; The Hurricane Heist (2018, 103 minutes) gives you what its title promises, resulting in a lacklustre 1990s action throwback starring Toby Kebbell, Maggie Grace, and Ryan Kwanten.

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