The tragic story of the Romanoff family, and its youngest member Anastasia in particular, has captivated audiences since the earliest era of the silver screen. Matthew Weiner, the creator of the widely praised series “Mad Men,” is the latest to take a stab at the story. The result is an anthology collection that shares “Mad Men”’s stylish flair but lacks the nuanced observations and character studies that made “Mad Men” memorable.
“The Violet Hour,” the first installation of the series, takes place in present day Paris. It centers around the estate of Anastasia LeCharnay (Marthe Keller, “The Escape”), an elderly, wealthy French woman who claims to be descended from the Romanoffs. Her nephew Greg (Aaron Eckhart, “Incarnate”) and his girlfriend Sophie (Louise Bourgoin, “I am a Soldier”) are her closest remaining relatives, despite the fact that they spend most of the episode waiting for her death and the resulting inheritance. Anastasia — who mostly goes by the diminutive Anushka — loathes her caretakers, especially the newest one Hajar (Inès Melab, “The Bird”), a young Frenchwoman of North African descent.
Anushka is cruel and uncouth towards Hajar, calling her a “terrorist” and citing events throughout history where “Western Civilization” defeated the “Muslim World.” She initially uses her family name and heritage as a symbol of “Western Civilization” itself, using it to constantly insult Hajar. While her tirades become rather uncomfortable to watch, it is even more disconcerting to somehow suggest that Hajar should sympathize with Anushka due to her clear isolation. The eventual thawing of relations never seems to feel quite natural. “The Violet Hour” is ostensibly an examination of power and its loss, but by using simple clichés such as a yellow Faberge egg and convoluted history lessons, the episode never gets its point across in a compelling way.
The episode fleetingly tackles other social topics as well, including the shrinking of the French middle class and the immigrant experience as a whole, but each discussion and exploration feels annoyingly superficial. Anushka is the only well-developed, fleshed-out character, leaving the rest to serve as mere props. While Hajar is portrayed as sympathetic, Melab is not given the opportunity to show much range beyond her mildly annoyed reactions towards Anushka’s racial epithets. Moreover, her family’s story is not given much thought, despite the potential comparisons with Anushka’s own background.
What “The Violet Hour” — and “The Romanoffs” as a whole — lacks in effective storytelling, it makes up for in the visuals. Anushka’s gilded Paris mansion is both stunningly beautiful yet hauntingly empty, giving better context for her misery than her own speeches. The shots are always controlled and varied, in typical Weiner style. Scenes featuring Anushka fittingly give the sense that despite her family’s wealth, she is little more than a petty, vindictive miser who is out-of-touch with modern France.
Perhaps due to its length, “The Violet Hour” never satisfyingly completes the discussions it brings up. While a beautiful watch, it straddles the line between “good” and “great,” lacking the subtlety to edge it towards the latter.