Arts Comment

The Last Czars on Netflix: What did the Romanovs do to deserve this?

The Last Czars, on Netflix, juggles documentary and drama with mixed results. The documentary sections, with commentary from a half dozen or more historians, present the cataclysmic downfall of the Romanovs from Nicholas II’s coronation in 1894 to his family’s murder at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918. From my knowledge of Russian history, the scholars – some academic, some not – do very well indeed painting an accurate and fairly comprehensive picture of one of the watershed events of modern times.

That the last of the Romanovs were hopelessly naïve and often plain stupid is simply the final chapter of imperial and aristocratic bungling during the dynasty’s last 50 years. Nicholas (played by Robert Jack) was completely out of touch with his realm: with the threat of revolutionary groups, the hamstringing of the Duma and the misery of the peasants. Czarina Alexandra (Susanna Herbert), stubborn and clueless, became scandalously fascinated and possibly enamoured with the notorious Rasputin, the Orthodox con man, whom she believed had both prophetic and healing powers essential to the health and survival of her haemophiliac son and heir to the throne.

Add to that Nicholas’s botched attempt to command the Russian war effort from 1915 to 1917, as well as his earlier humiliation in the Russo-Japanese war, and you have a recipe for political disaster.

The dramatic side is good at times, but it has three major flaws: crude dialogue, vulgarity, and explicit sex – all of which might have been avoided. As for the unconvincing script, I will give one of a dozen examples. As Rasputin meets Bishop Germogen (Mark Frost), the bishop cautions him: “We need to be on the same page.” An ancient Russian proverb it ain’t, and not what one would expect from an Orthodox cleric.

The vulgarity is the predictable f-word, which has become so prevalent on Netflix and Amazon Prime that one might suspect a directive from above setting a quota. In The Last Czars, the word is especially offensive and silly since it’s so often in the mouths of well-bred noblemen in the presence of equally well-bred ladies. (Even Alexandra drops one F-bomb.)

The sex scenes are largely gratuitous. One may accept the historians’ claims that “Nicky” and “Alix” loved each other passionately, but the series leaves nothing to the imagination, with Nicky, like Bill Clinton in the White House, having raw sex with Alix in a palace office, both stark naked.

The acting is good enough, and the history refresher is appreciated. But if you plan on watching The Last Czars, send the children to bed first.

Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia