Netflix’s The Last Czars paints a vivid portrait of the rise and fall of the Russian Romanov family through a masterful blend of drama and documentary.
I’ve been looking forward to The Last Czars since hearing about it a few weeks ago (they keep things under wraps at Netflix!), because it’s a corner of history I know just enough about to be intrigued by, but don’t have the details committed to memory like, say, the Tudor or Windsor monarchies. It follows the downfall of the Romanov family: Czar Nicholas II, his wife Czarina Alexandra and their five children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei. This is prime dramatic territory here, possessing everything those other well-dramatized families have and more: a strong, stoic dictator who shouts down his better angels to consolidate power; a love story between a king and his queen; a desperate hope for a male heir; a sex-obsessed religious fanatic who wields tremendous power over the royal family. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.
So, I was excited about the exploration of that area of history – it was garnering comparisons to The Crown and Victoria, but almost no mention of its other genre: it’s a docudrama, not a straight period drama. This made me more than a little apprehensive. Docudramas are so often awkwardly done, with abrupt, off-putting shifts from the drama into the talking heads. But this is really good. The Last Czars smooths out the seams much better than any series of its kind, particularly Roman Empire, which has done it better than most but still misses more often than it hits. All this to say, I’d prefer a straight docuseries like The Windsors or a full-on drama like The Crown, but for what it is, it does its job incredibly well.
The Last Czars masterfully juggles a few different storylines. First, the fall of the Czar and his family. When we meet Czar Nicholas II (Robert Jack) his father has just died and he’s inherited the throne, just five days before his wedding to Alexandra (Susanna Herbert). Unlike most royal families, they love one another passionately and hope to rule together and live up to the great name of their dynasty. They begin the story perched atop the world, nowhere to go but down. This luxurious wealth is dramatically contrasted with the brutal poverty and starkness of the Russian peasant life, seen through the eyes of Rasputin (Ben Cartwright) as he makes his pilgrimage toward the royal family and power of his own. When the two stories combine, beautiful chaos ensues and tragedy follows.
Most documentary series with dramatic elements lack good acting, but this is a well-chosen cast who could have carried a full-on drama. Ben Cartwright embodies the eerie, domineering, sex-driven power of Rasputin to its fullest, maniacal extent, while Robert Jack and Susanna Herbert play loving partners torn about their place in the Russian hierarchy. They look with academic sympathy upon their suffering people while reticent to leave their (almost literal) gilded ivory tower. This seals their fates.
The Last Czars boasts beautiful cinematography from Tom Pridham and Benjamin Pritchard (both well-used British cinematographers who step outside their traditional comfort zones). They lovingly and effectively capture the allure of the Russian countryside and architecture in all its various forms. I’m loving the use of drones becoming more ubiquitous and effectively utilized, keeping production values high while presumably cutting the costs. I do wish the people and the drama were as well shot. It’s perfectly passable but lacks the wholistic finesse of The Crown or other full-on dramas.
The full-frontal, and at times “orgiastic”, nudity hamstrings their viewing numbers and potential for a wider audience. Maybe I’m coming at this as a history and literature teacher who frequently tries to find pieces of film to accentuate my lessons, but this means schools and families can’t use The Last Czars as an educational piece. Or I have to be much more vigilant about what I show and who I recommend it to. I’m no prude, but the nudity isn’t needed, and the point of a documentary is to educate. Don’t wipe out a large portion of your audience from the gate!
The Last Czars is a winning effort on the part of Netflix, the writers, and the producers to expand their catalog of historical docudramas. It’s a compelling series, beautifully shot, lavishly designed, and well-acted throughout. They’ve done what few shows of its kind can do: balance the drama and the documentary to both tell a compelling story and to provide a wider context for what we’re seeing.