Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace Book Review

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Review:

One of my favorite Russian history books, Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is the “biography” of a lesser known palace near St. Petersburg. Pavlovsk Palace is not as grand as better known palaces such as Peter the Great’s imitation Versailles at Peterhof, or the massive Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, but it’s inspired an unusual degree of devotion in many people across the centuries, starting with its original owner, the Empress Maria Feodorovna, Catherine the Great’s daughter-in-law and wife of the ill-fated Emperor Paul (Pavel) I. Catherine took Maria’s first two sons away from her at birth to raise herself, and Maria and Paul were only permitted to see them once a week. Deprived of her children, the artistic and cultured Maria threw her energies into designing and decorating the palace and gardens of Pavlovsk. There is quite a bit of interesting information about Maria, her architects and landscapers, and the different influences on the park’s final design, especially for anyone interested in architecture, fine art, or landscape design.

After Maria’s death, the park was opened to the public and became the site of fashionable concerts (including an extended visit by Strauss) for most of the later 19th century. The Soviets, after initially planning to sell off its treasures, were eventually persuaded by Pavlovsk’s caretaker to turn it into a state museum.

Then came World War II and the Nazi invasion of Russia. There is a fascinating and horrifying chapter about the siege of Leningrad, the deadliest in human history, during which 1-1.5 million civilians died and an additional 1,400,000 were evacuated. Pavlovsk itself was stripped of as many of its treasures as its caretakers could preserve while the Nazi army approached, and these were buried on the grounds of the park or taken to Leningrad or Siberia.  The rest were looted or destroyed by the Germans, who also cut down 70,000 trees within the park and set fire to the palace as they retreated near the end of the war. In the aftermath of the war, with the palace and park in smoldering ruins, its caretakers spent decades painstakingly rebuilding and restoring it to its former glory, and it is now once again open to the public.

Pavlovsk: The Life of a Russian Palace is well-written and absorbing, and will make you love Pavlovsk as much as its author clearly does. I was inspired after reading it to visit the park three times during my semester abroad in Russia and consider it one of the most beautiful spots in Russia.

Here’s a video with scenes from the palace and park:

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Book Review

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Review:

The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, is one of my favorite classic adventure novels. It gets off to a rather slow start, but ratchets up the tension beautifully as the story progresses until it’s practically impossible to put down. I also like that Marguerite, while forced into the role of damsel-in-distress at several points, is nevertheless allowed to be quite clever and resourceful in her own right. For a novel originally published in 1905, she’s an unusually spunky and likable heroine!

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

It seems like a book that would make a fantastic movie, but I’ve been disappointed with the attempts so far. The 1934 version with Leslie Howard was just awful. I liked the 1982 film with Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan a lot more, but still feel like it could be done better. Here’s the trailer for that version:

The Broadway musical soundtrack is enjoyable, but I’ve never seen it on stage.

A Royal Affair Movie Review

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Review:

Winston Churchill once said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” A Royal Affair is the sort of movie that reminds you how right he was.

As frustrating as democracy can sometimes be, imagine what it might be like to try and enact any sort of meaningful reform or change in a country ruled by a king who is weak-willed, unstable, and quite possibly insane. Add in entrenched conservative interests such as a powerful Church and aristocracy, and an uneducated and superstitious populace, and you have the unenviable task taken on by Johann Struensee, an ambitious but idealistic commoner who rose to become the de facto regent of Denmark after becoming the personal physician of King Christian VII. Along the way, Struensee also become the lover of Christian’s queen, Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (sister of the hapless King George III, who had his own share of mental problems later in life), which proved the catalyst for his ultimate downfall.

Speaking of helpful reminders, this film is also a pretty good reminder of how much life sucked for the average princess, historically. Caroline is shipped off to a foreign country at the age of 15, her friends and family taken from her, even her beloved books sent back to England due to Denmark’s harsh censorship laws. Married to the aforementioned unstable and possibly insane king, she is all but raped on her wedding night, gives birth at the age of 16, and is left neglected and bored in the palace while he goes off for tours of Europe and wild nights with prostitutes. One can hardly blame her for seeking solace in Struensee’s arms, but the laws of her own time were not so forgiving.

The story of their doomed romance and efforts at reform is beautifully shot, sumptuously costumed (especially given the film’s relatively small budget), and very well acted. Mads Mikkelsen as Struensee and Alicia Vikander as Caroline Matilda have good chemistry together and really make you feel for both characters. I was also impressed by the performance of Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as the unstable but well-meaning Christian. Christian and Struensee’s relationship lacked the UST of Caroline and Struensee’s, but was more complex and ultimately more interesting. It was as sad to watch their friendship fall apart as the more dramatic and involuntary severing of Caroline and Struensee’s relationship.

One minor disappointment – if Wikipedia is to be believed, the real Caroline had a penchant for wearing men’s clothes in public, which scandalized the nation as much as, if not more than, her affair with Streunsee. Although Struensee encourages the film Caroline to ride astride, rather than sidesaddle, there’s no other indication of her cross-dressing habit, which is a pity, really. The real Christian was also notable for affairs with young men, though his most long-lasting and famous extramarital liaison was with a female prostitute.

Despite these and some other emissions and changes, the film overall seems unusually historically accurate for a movie (readers with more extensive knowledge of Danish history are welcome to correct me if this impression is incorrect), yet its accuracy comes without sacrificing good storytelling. Highly recommended.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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The Scarlet Pimpernel Original Broadway Cast Recording

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Review:

I’ve never seen this musical live, but the soundtrack is very enjoyable and I’m surprised The Scarlet Pimpernel never became a bigger hit. As a huge fan of Terrence Mann, who played the villain Chauvelin, I have to say that his songs are my favorite, particularly the swoon-worthy “Where’s the Girl?” and the viciously cynical trio “The Riddle.”

There’s also some excellent comedy songs and I’m impressed by Douglas Sills’s ability to transition seamlessly between the roles of clownish buffoon and dashing hero.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl Movie Review

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Review:

A tremendous amount of fun, thanks mainly to the iconic performance of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow and the twisty, turny plot, which manages to keep you guessing until the end exactly how it will play out.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

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