Catherine’s Voice: Zoey Wilson.
Narrator: Rod MacLeish.
Russia’s magnificent Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg provides an opulent, golden three-hour location site as the cameras explore its corridors, inspect the enormous museum’s treasures, and connect them with Russian history. The superb paintings, statues, jewelry and artifacts gloriously light up the TV screen, but the docu majors in shallow.
Producer-director John Baehrend, zigzagging through the museum with no clear overall plan to explain what’s where, might have used a floorplan. ]
Thanks to the enormity of the task, writer-narrator Rod MacLeish has to skim some: as a camera zeroes in on a pharaoh after scanning an Egyptian frieze, MacLeish says, “The Egyptian collection contains some of the most dramatic art of the ancient pharaohs.” But the glimpses are nothing to match MacLeish’s boast.
The great indoor stretches — Catherine the Great estimated she took in two miles as she strode through the magnificent halls — are glowingly displayed in the first hour.
Baehrend endlessly prowls the galleries, zooming in too close on paintings by Rubens, Titian and Rembrandt, most of which Catherine imported with Kanelike zeal.
As a striking illusion, Baehrend uses sculptured heads of Catherine and Voltaire exchanging views.
The two-century story is rounded off by: the fall of the monarchy; the state’s taking over private collections for the Hermitage; and how the museum fared under Lenin, who ordered the troops to protect it, and under pragmatic Stalin.
Program sometimes displays works of art so that detail takes precedence over the overall work — too much time is spent lingering on a single object on a canvas.
Colors are magnificently realized, as is the sense of flow as Baehrend and MacLeish guide viewers through Russia’s dramatic history.
Taped in 28 days by cinematographer Hein G.A.M. Groot and a seven-person production crew, with the help of lighting director William Greenfield, the ambitious project, shepherded by exec producer Daniel Wilson often dazzles.