This The Romanoffs review contains spoilers.
The Romanoffs Episode 3
Well, that sure was something. After the slight, elongated first two episodes of The Romanoffs, “The House of Special Purpose” at least attempts to be something more ambitious. One part Hollywood satire, one part horrific fever dream, episode three of The Romanoffs is brimming with ideas and had my wheels turning just as hard as Christina Hendricks’ befuddled actress Olivia, but the end result still had me left feeling a bit cold.
“The House of Special Purpose” centers on Hendricks’ Olivia arriving in Austria to shoot a six-part miniseries about the downfall of the Romanov family after another actress has dropped out of the project. Olivia is working with former actress and now domineering director Jacqueline, played with intimidating venom by the always excellent Isabelle Huppert. The mind games begin between Olivia and Jacqueline almost immediately, with Jacqueline bringing Olivia directly to set to watch the unsettling burial of the Romanov characters instead of off to her hotel after a long flight.
Hendricks and Hubbert are wonderful sparring partners. Their scenes crackle and coast on what the working adversaries want to, but don’t, say to one another. As two women working in an industry that’s been historically unfair to their gender, they have so much in common and likely many shared experiences, which is why Jacqueline’s bizarrely confrontational way of working surprises and pains Olivia even more, but Jacqueline insists that if she doesn’t rule her set mercilessly, it will be ripped away from her.
At times Jacqueline’s unconventional approach can garner laughs, like when she allows the actor playing Czar Nicholas to sing “Suspicious Minds” as a way of getting into the head of his character while Olivia watches on dumbstruck. Other times, like when Jacqueline makes blunt comments about Olivia’s sexual history, the bullying can feel too close to home. The Romanoffs creator/writer/director Matt Weiner was accused of running the set of his former show, Mad Men, like a petty dictator. If you’re aware of this information, it can certainly be distracting.
Beside the Hendricks and Hubbert relationship, the encroaching Twilight Zone vibe of Jacqueline’s shoot is another highlight. The disorienting behavior of the film crew and the hotel staff, which at times appear to be directly channeling the ghosts of the deceased Romanovs, along with Weiner’s foggy tracking shots conjure memories of The Shining. It’s all aided by Hendricks’ performance, which gets increasingly desperate and scared as things get increasingly inexplicable. Still, the horror elements can get too quirky for their own good and it’s never clear whether we’re witnessing something truly supernatural, an elaborate prank meant to coax a better performance out of Olivia, or just a metaphor for Olivia’s uneasy state after the passing of her mother.
Perhaps there’s too much mystery and a lack of clear meaning keeping this episode from feeling like a slam dunk. I don’t need my hand held or things made explicit, but there are components of the episode that never quite seem to add up, like Samuel’s disappearance, Jacqueline’s connection to the spirits, and why Bob and Jacqueline would be trying to “trick” a performance out of Olivia in the final scene. It’s entirely possible that there are layers here that I’m missing. I think I understand that the spirit of Maria Fyodrovna is possessing Jacqueline in an effort to “stop” the murders of the Romanovs, even if it’s just a reenactment, and it’s as if both women are trying to control the set, crew, and cast. But as to why this is happening to Olivia, I’m unsure.
Also, this is yet another episode of The Romanoffs that’s overly long. Someone needs to tell Weiner that just because he has 90 minutes at his disposal, he doesn’t have to use it. In my estimation, there’s easily 20 minutes here that could have been shaved and the story would have been no worse for wear.
But on the flip side, there is a somewhat hypnotizing quality to all of strangeness on display, the absurdity alone making it far more interesting than the previous installments. Once again, the set design and costumes are immaculate and there’s something gorgeous to look at in almost every frame. “The House of Special Purpose” comes close to being truly special, aided chiefly by talented actors doing what they do best, it just would have benefited from a sharper focus.
Nick Harley is a tortured Cleveland sports fan, thinks Douglas Sirk would have made a killer Batman movie, Spider-Man should be a big-budget HBO series, and Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson should direct a script written by one another. For more thoughts like these, read Nick’s work here at Den of Geek or follow him on Twitter.
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