Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

Nicholas and AlexandraOne of the most beautifully crafted and moody epics to come out of Hollywood (or, to be accurate, Britain), "Nicholas and Alexandra" has never acquired the reputation it deserves. Released at a time when big budget spectaculars were considered passé, hostile contemporary reviews have shaped the film's reputation. While hardly perfect, the film nonetheless provides a reasonably accurate, if politically conservative overview of pre-revolutionary Russia and does an excellent job of individualizing the two monarchs.

The two central, completely convincing performances are by relative unknowns Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman. Several first-rate actors (Laurence Olivier, Eric Porter, Ian Holm, Alan Webb, Harry Andrews, Irene Worth, Jack Hawkins, Michael Redgrave, John McEnery, Curt Jurgens and others) support them in small parts and manage to make us forget their familiar presences to concentrate on their characters. The actors are cushioned by Yvonne Blake and Antonio Castillo's lush costumes and Richard Rodney Bennett's symphonic score in an elegant jewelry box crafted by designer John Box, cinematographer Freddie Young and director Franklin Schaffner.

The film has two major failings. First, it is just a touch *too* sympathetic to the monarchs. Quite apart from the lack of any evaluation of their short-comings as leaders, there are too many scenes calculated, presumably (and questionably), to demonstrate Nicholas "learning" from his mistakes. Second, in the effort to dramatize a complex historical moment, there is simply too much of it. We jump from the Russo-Japanese War to the 1905 Russian Revolution to Stolypin's reforms, to Rasputin's influence, to the First World War, the Februrary Revolution, the October Revolution, and on and on. In this rush to include everything, little other than the monarchs' lives is dealt with in any depth and the efforts to depict the revolutionaries are particularly awkward.

One of the most notorious scenes in the film, commented upon by more than one contemporary review, is a brief early moment when Lenin says to a journalist, "Pay attention, you're about to see the birth of the Bolshevik party." That's about the level of the political evaluation, and one can understand why the scene, along with about ten minutes elsewhere, was cut in subsequent theatrical and video release. (On the other hand, the characterization of Lenin as an intolerant prig, however uncomprehending of his political ideas, does ring remarkably true.) The DVD restores these excisions. The transfer is considerably warmer than Columbia's previous video releases, and is 16:9 enhanced.

I recommend the disc to anyone interested in the subject or the capacity of films to make history live for audiences. Apparently like several other reviewers here, I first saw "Nicholas and Alexandra" in its initial theatrical release and loved it. I immediately read Massie's book after seeing it, which was the first step in what has proven a life-long interest in the period. Despite its failings, it is a testament to the film's power that it can exercise this level of fascination over viewers' imaginations.

The unadulturated history of the Russian monarchy has produced more compelling drama than anything Hollywood could produce in its wildest flights: Ivan the Terrible's descent into madness; Peter the Great's violent childhood and adult retributions (including the murder of his son) as the backdrop for supreme political accomplishments; Catherine the Great's seizure of a throne from a madman and her emergence as the dominant monarch of her age; Alexander I's possible complicity in the assasination of his father, his defeat of Napoleon, and likely faking of his death to live out his life as a religious hermit; Alexander II's death at the hands of terrorists. And the curtain drops on the Russian monarchy much as the play ran -in pools of blood. The main difference in the Nicholas and Alexandra saga is that their predecessors created their own dramas, whereas Nicholas and Alexandra succumbed to the drama of events swirling around them.

This movie is inaccurate in many details. For instance, the real Dowager Empress visited her son on his train only after his abdication, not in the weeks before the monarchy fell. Anna Vyrobuva, a signficant and unwittingly sinister player in the Rasputin debacle, is missing. And the loyalty to the Tsar professed by the other Romanovs in the movie glosses over the fact that there were serious family discussions about a coup to send Alexandra into exile and maybe even to remove Nicholas himself.

But these are nits. In a larger sense the movie compellingly captures the essence of the two fundamental issues that combined to bring the Romanov dynasty crashing down. The first had to do with Nicholas. He was a kind, gentle family man much more suited to the life of a country gentleman. When called upon to exercise real power to influence complex events, he fell into a pattern of posturing, denial, and a passive belief that he could just go with his reactionary biases instead of with disciplined examination of reality. After all, God had made him emperor, and therefore it must be God's will that he felt and decided as he did.

The other issue had to do with Alexandra. A shy, high-strung woman who was equipped neither by temperament, intellect, nor upbringing to ride herd on a decadent court or fractious nest of in-laws, she inclined to a mystical view of religion and monarchy that could rise almost to hysteria. It would have been a volatile situation in the best of circumstances. But Alexandra got dealt a very bad hand. Russia was opening up culturally and intellectually and looking to unshackle itself from unthinking political and religious orthodoxy. And she was failing in her principle purpose -to produce a male heir to the greatest throne on earth. Nearing menopause after bearing four daughters, she finally bore a son, only to find him cursed by the hoemophila that ran through her relations. She had offended God, and she had to know why.

Alexandra responded with a downward spiral into an increasingly bizarre mysticism that further clouded her husband's foggy view of his world and his role -and that ultimately opened the door to perhaps the most bizarre case of malign political influence in the annals of government: Rasputin.

While botching a detail here and there, the movie does a marvelous job of accurately portraying the salient aspects of how these things ate away at Nicholas' real power to replace it with a mushrooming fantasy of power as he, and Alexandra even moreso, perceived it. Although ruling one-sixth of the world's land surface, the couple's world view finally came to extend no further than the small circle of their tight-knit immediate family and their gilded enclave at Tsarskoye Selo.

When the revolution came -as Nicholas's fatalism and the insane yielding to Rasputin's interference in government made inevitable -Nicholas actually entered a few months of calm that on some level were the most peaceful of his life. Power scared and exhausted him. The shackles of jailers were light compared to those of a throne.

The fact that the revolution that deepened his country's enslavement actually freed Nicholas from those things he most abhorred illustrate just how far the Romanov dynasty had come to odds with the very purpose of its existence. In the end, Nicholas and Alexandra showed a grace and sanguinity in captivity and extermination that was utterly absent when they ruled the world's largest country. No scriptwriter could improve on this script, and the great art of this movie is that none tried.

Buy Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) Now

My beef about the film is that they took liberties in telling and condensing the story when it wasn't necessary. In Tobolsk the family lived in the Governor's Mansion not a log cabin in the woods. Yekaterinburg looked like some Spanish town rather a city in the Urals. None of the movie was filmed in Russia or Finland (for obvious reasons). The execution involved eleven people in the movie they cut down the number. Other scenes were outright inventions.

None of the church or religious scenes came off right. They seem more Catholic or Anglican than Orthodox.

Nicholas was taught English from the age of 8 by a Scottish teacher, Mr. Heath. He had an accent in English, but it wasn't identifiable as "Russian". They all would have sounded 'upper crust' so the accents were fine for me.

Suzmann and Jayston were superb. Suzmann was a little too glamorous and Hollywood looking for the role, but she pulled off the characterisation well.

I don't know if it's well known, but the Romanov family walked out on the premier because of the changes made to the story.

Read Best Reviews of Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) Here

I love "Nicholas and Alexandra." I read the book when I was a teenager and it helped start me on my lifelong interest in Russian history and history in general. I saw the movie when it first came out in 1971-72 and have seen it many times since. The VHS version is OK but suffers by being too obviously edited down and shortened. The DVD version is much preferable because we now get all of the original film. The parts which were edited from the VHS version were not crucial to the story, but they add so much to it. We see Nicholas and Alexandra in a tender moment with their newborn son, before they learn of his hemophilia, Lenin with his wife helping to start the Bolshevik Party, the Tsar's daughters in a moment of light hearted play, a sweet family discussion between the Tsar, Empress, and their children, and a tense encounter between one of the daughters and a prison guard in Siberia, plus several more scenes. Furthermore, the DVD version has a "featurette" narrated by the actress who played Tatiana. This gives us some interesting behind the scenes looks at the movie's filming. So, even if you already have the VHS version, by all means buy the DVD too!

Want Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) Discount?

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA is an epic and lavish production, deliberatly paced (almost to the point of boredom), rarely seen nowadays. The performances, particularly the leads, are excellent. The detail in costuming and settings are remarkable. The story of the last years of Russia's Tsar and family is depressing, somewhat like peering down a sprialing drain to an inevitable tragic end. A great deal of historical material is touched upon in this movie, making it difficult to keep the story on track withen 3 hours running time. The movie leads the viewer to want to read the Robert K Massie book, which is even better (and highly readable). The DVD is the best edition of NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA available to home audiences. The wide screen picture and sound (possibly mono)are excellent.The DVD restores aprox 15 minutes of footage not seen sinnce the movie's early roadshow presentations. Also included for the first time is composer Richard Rodney Bennett's great intermssion music. More chapter stops should have been included. A trailer and a bland "making of" featurette are included. Definitly worth watching, true fans of epic movie productions may consider purchasing this DVD.

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