Retro Film Review: Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

in film •  last year 

Russian Revolution was not just the most turbulent period in the history of that great nation. It was regarded as one of the most important events in the global history, at least until the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent degradation of Communist ideology to one of the tragic mistakes of human spirit. As such important event, Russi Revolution inspire many filmmakers, including even some that contributed a lot to the history of cinema as art, like Sergei Eisenstein. However, due to ideological reasons, almost all of those films were presenting the Revolution from the perspective of its victors,- the Communists. Western cinema, that was suppose to offer somewhat different picture, was mostly silent on the subject. There were, of course, few exceptions, most notable being celebrated epic Doctor Zhivago by David Lean. Seven years later Franklin J. Schaffner directed Nicholas and Alexandra, another epic that covers the same period, this time from the perspective of the ultimate losers.

For almost three centuries, Romanov dynasty, using the iron grip of oriental despotism, ruled Russia and witnessed the rise of that country into the most powerful empire of Europe. But, in the same time, Russia is also the most backwards empire in Europe, because autocratic regime bars any serious reforms and leaves most of the people in utmost poverty and deprived of basic rights. In 1904, when movie begins, Tsar Nicholas II (played bby Michael Jayston) is convinced that the things are good as they are. Soon, the humiliating defeat in the war with Japan brings the wrath of oppressed masses and Nicholas reluctantly agrees to begin reforms. But the attempt is half-hearted, because Nicholas is basically a weakling, unable to act strongly because of cowardice, yet unable to compromise because of pride. The woes of his empire are secondary to the woes of his family – wife Alexandra (played Janet Suzman) and the children, including haemophilic Alexis. Power vacuum is quickly becoming misused by many shady characters, including demonic Rasputin (played by Tom Baker). But the real danger emerges only after Russia gets sucked into World War One and when the military disasters shatters any remaining authority of Tsarist regime. The ensuing chaos would give opportunity to revolutionaries - first moderates under Kerensky (played by John McEnery), than radicals under Lenin (played by Michael Bryant) and his Bolsheviks.

Based on the novel by Richard K. Massie, screenplay by James Goldman neatly condenses last thirteen years of Romanov's rule into three hour long film. Direction by Franklin J. Schaffner (known for epic films like Planet of the Apes and *Papillon?) is also superb, with segments that balance well between the intimate tragedy of the last Russian Tsar and the even greater tragedy that looms in front of him, his family and country. The film is perhaps less successful in contrasting the luxurious, almost fairytale life of Tsar and the utter poverty and misery of his subjects - the unwashed masses are given role in rather short segments that are sometimes not so subtle in illustrating the growing discontent that would lead into revolution. The acting, on the other hand, is superb. Apart from Jayston, we have many fine actors in side roles, with Tom Baker being one of the more humane Rasputins in the long series of actors that used to portray that mystical personality. Also, the film doesn't lack spectacle, but the biggest value is great care for period details, with eye-pleasing production design and costumes. The film ends brutally, which is somewhat disappointing, but filmmakers are less guilty for that than the history itself.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on May 9th 1999)

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