The Chosen One
The House of Special Purpose
The Last Czars feels like a lavish three course meal thrown into a blender. Individually, the plates are excellent but together the clash of style and flavour never quite works. Acting as a dramatized documentary, the show mixes re-enactments with talking head segments, archival footage, stock photographs and narration that never allows the series to settle into a consistent groove. The result is something that’s certainly enjoyable enough to watch, but also a massive missed opportunity to challenge The Crown as best period drama of the year.
The story itself is a fascinating one, following the footsteps of the great Romanov dynasty and fall of Nicholas II and his family in Russia during the heart of the modern revolution. Split across 6 episodes, we see his coronation, disastrous war-room tactics and time with Rasputin before subsequently capitulating in the wake of World War I. Before his family’s bloody end, we see all the main events that led up to this moment through a mixture of re-enactments and narration.
As an educational documentary, The Last Czars is a fascinating journey into the lives of a family destined to fail from the beginning. All the ups and downs are explored and the archival footage from the time are well placed throughout the episodes. It’s really interesting stuff and certainly helps to paint a realistic portrait of life during that time. The stock photographs are a nice touch too and the experts themselves articulate their words clearly and with genuine enthusiasm.
On the other side of the spectrum are the dramatized re-enactments themselves. While the costume and set design are excellent, the use of colloquial British language and bite-size scenes mean you never really warm to any of these characters; the actions they take feel passive rather than genuinely emotional. In the first episode we’re told about carts of bodies being taken away from a tragic accident in a field and Nicholas’ defiance to carry on with his festivities is told to us through narration, rather than showing us a simple close-up shot of his reaction to arriving at the scene. There are numerous examples of this all the way through theshow and the result is something that never quite gives these re-enactments the character and emotion they should have.
If The Last Czars had stuck to its period drama format like The Crown or alternatively went all-in with a six-part documentary series, I can’t help but feel this would have worked much better. The characters are interesting enough to carry the drama and the fleeting moments of genuine emotion the actors are given feel like a teasing glimpse of what could have been with this show. You never really feel emotionally drawn to what’s happening on screen and because of this, the re-enactments fall flat and feel lifeless.
Stylistically, the series does do well and the use of music, combined with the general aesthetic of each episode, are really nicely implemented. The blending from Russian to English translation of places is a nice touch and the camera work is pretty good throughout the show. The documentary segments utilize the narration well and the archival footage shown is portrayed in black and white, helping to break up the saturated, lavish colours in the re-enactments.
There’s no denying that The Last Czars is a good looking show. The six episodes are interesting, historically accurate and generally well-paced in telling this intriguing story. For me though, the blending of documentary and re-enactment drama doesn’t work to tell this story as effectively as it could. It feels like an old History Channel documentary at times and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, you’d be forgiven for thinking The Last Czars would be the next big period drama from looking at the trailer and production stills of the show.
As a documentary series, Last Czars is good. As a drama, the show does well. Together though, the two styles clash and jar, failing to really settle into a consistent rhythm throughout the series. What we’re left with then is a show that’s neither here nor there but a historically accurate, educational and enjoyable one nonetheless.