BR: Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

December 29, 2013 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / N to O

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Film: Very Good / BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time / Region: All / Released:  February 12, 2013

Genre: Historical Drama / Biography / The Romanovs / Russian Revolution

Synopsis: The final years of Russia’s last rulers – Tsar Nicholas and Alexandra – are dramatized in this lengthy yet affecting historical drama.

Special Features:  Isolated Mono Music Track / Three 1971 promo featurettes: “Changing Faces” (6:27) + “Royal Daughters” (7:57) + “The Royal Touch” (6:01) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

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Review:

Oscar Winner for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design. Oscar Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Janet Suzman), Best Cinematography, and Best Music – Original Dramatic Score.

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Based on the eponymous book by historical writer Robert K. Massie, Sam Spiegel’s production was a lavish attempt to depict the final years of Russia’s Romanovs, the royal dynasty which ruled the vast country for 300 years before a series of grievous decisions and global events not only eroded their power, but saw the core family members executed in 1918, ending Russia’s connection with a monarchy and beginning a decades-long rebirth as a Communist state with far-reaching influence after WWII.

Spiegel’s film may humanize the family’s maternal and paternal leaders, but it doesn’t shy away from revealing Nicholas’ sheer ineptitude as a ruler; his being influenced by his German-born wife who in turn put great faith in he mystic figure Rasputin when his foresight revealed her hemophiliac son would not die at an early age; and his inexperience in warfare, which resulted in a prolonged WWI campaign that cost millions of lives and nearly bankrupted the country’s coffers.

The complexity of Russian history leading up to the Revolution of 1917 are reduced to strategic and wholly digestible pin-points, which actually helps maintain the film’s focus on the devoted relationship between the titular characters. Director Franklin Scahffner (Patton) allows for periodic moments of epic events, dialed down to briefly impress but never take away from the films central romance which remained solid until the couple was executed with their children and servants.

Scenes with the family (and on a few occasions, the four daughters and young son) show the Romanovs enjoying a lighter quality of life away from the country’s class and political struggles, and while these scenes do support the sheer disconnect between the royals and their subjects, they also slow down the narrative with too many brief interludes. Prince Alexis’ constant fear of potentially hemorrhaging internally from tumbles and bumps is revisited too often, and the film only becomes energized when the political machinations of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky are given more screen time, in addition to the blunders of certain military and political leaders.

Scenes in which Nicholas refuses to exit WWI, and his disdain for empowering the people in a British-styled constitutional monarchy are devastating to watch, especially his knee-jerk reaction to open / shut down / reopen the Russian Dumas – moves which only deepened the poor and working class’ loathing of the royals. Certainly in James Goldman’s script, Nicholas, as a pampered son thrust into power after his father’s murder; his inexperience in war and politics; his delusional belief he was second to God; and his ignorance of the suffering poor made him an absolute disaster. Whatever nobility may have come with his royal position and lifestyle was an offense to the average citizen who toiled as the Romanovs enjoyed a spectacularly bejeweled lifestyle.

Spiegel’s experience in producing epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and putting faith in skilled directors ensured N&A would evolve into a gorgeous production, and although there is a sense Columbia’s purse strings were a little tighter for this go-around, Schaffner stages modest epic moments across the wide Panavision canvas to impart Spiegel’s sensibilities, but without a sense we’ve been cheated with lesser scenes or epic vignettes.

N&A’s costumes, sets, locations, and plethora of superb British talent in minor roles ensures the film has quality, and Goldman’s script offers enough poetry, irony, and sadness to give the film balance for fans of epic productions, historical dramas, tragic romances, and Romanov fans… but at over 3 hours, it does run far too long, and there are moments when even Schaffner’s modern visual style of fast and occasionally jarring cuts, use of zooms, and impressionistic, elegant visuals can’t give the film needed momentum.

Goldman’s script is fairly strong, but there are two exchanges which stop the film cold because they’re recapping the obvious: Count Witte (Laurence Olivier) pleading to Nicholas amid a room filled with military brass is a surreal whine, more so because it’s dramatized like a frozen moment in time, with no other character reacting to their clearly audible discourse between the two men; and son Alexis chiding father Nicholas from bed after a stair tumble for being a disappointment to his family is jarring because it’s an articulate, adult hectoring coming from a child previously seen as sickly, passive, and often non-verbal. (It’s quite rare when the boy speaks at length, but a key scene in which he supports his mother’s decision to postpone the signing of vital governmental documents certainly shows the prince possessing the same disregard for reality as his parents.)

The first half starts to lumber after 40 mins. and the finale which depicts the ennui of the arrested family in Siberia drags, but the filmmakers certainly exploited the mounting doom as the family is slowly reduced from opulent rulers to a family in flight, ultimately housed in pedestrian quarters before being shot in a cellar by a handful of their captors. Especially unsettling is a small scene in which chemicals for the dissolution of the family’s bodies are delivered away from the house; and the moment an appointed apparatchik receives the order to execute the entire family – a dry, clinical, and absolute decision which ensures the dynasty’s roots and chances to return to power ended that night.

The casting of unknowns Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman (making her film debut) may have hurt the film’s box office appeal, but they hold their own in envisioning a complex couple rather than two historical caricatures, if not actors cast solely for their resemblance to their historical counterparts. It also helps the pair in being surrounded by an amazing array of stage and film icons, plus newcomers to film including Brian Cox (Manhunter) as a giant-haired Trotsky, Ian Holm (Alien), and a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker as Rasputin. Also in the mix are Guy Rolfe (Mr. Sardonicus), Ania Marson (Puppet on a Chain), and Lynne Frederick (Vampire Circus).

Reportedly released in 6-track 70mm, Twilight Time’s HD transfer comes from a ‘scope 35mm print with mono sound. Admirers of Richard Rodney Bennett’s lovely score (and his popular theme) may grumble the film isn’t even in rudimentary stereo, but like the 1991 Pioneer laserdisc, the music is present in an enhanced mono on a separate isolated music track; the only true stereo source remains the original Bell LP release, and the rare Artemis CD reissue.

Visually, the print is in superb shape – virtually pristine – and sports gorgeous colours that capture the breadth of the sets and costumes. The reds and blues are especially radiant, flattering the remarkable cinematography of Freddie Young (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter). N&A was reportedly shorn of several minutes after its premiere, and a further cut-down version running 173 mins. was released on VHS, and the prior 1991 Pioneer and later 1996 laserdisc editions

Sony’s 1999 and TT’s 2013 BR contain the full 189 min. version, and TT’s ported over the DVD’s trailer. Talent Bios remain unique to the DVD, but in addition to retaining the vintage promo featurette “Royal Daughters,” in which Lynn Fredericks narrates the arrival and preparation of herself and her young co-stars, TT’s added two additional featurettes: makeup is addressed in “Changing Faces,” and the work of fashion & costume designer Antonio Castillo is showcased with utterly banal narration in “The Royal Touch.” Lastly, whereas the BR contains English SDH subtitles, the Sony DVD boasts Subtitles in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.

If N&L was criticized during its release for inaccuracies, blame lies in the filtered research materials given to author Massie by the Soviet government before a wealth of material was declassified following the fall of Communism. Even with its moments of dramatic license, N&L manages to convey the wealth, ignorance, and stupidity of the royal couple who, as Julie Kirgo writes, were ‘dunderheads’ in failing to see the signs and act to save their country from a bloody WWI and civil war.

It’s a case study of a royal disaster, and screenwriter Goldman (The Lion in Winter) seemed to have structured key scenes to repeatedly show the contrast between monarchial ineptitude and the revisions which enabled Germany, and especially England, to progress beyond absolute rule. (In German history, social benefits conveyed upon the populace were a means to keep them content and less rebellious, whereas Britain’s redesign enabled the royal family to remain not only beloved through several generations, but as active figureheads with governmental power residing with its democratically elected parliament.)

Goldman’s script could be read as a cautionary alert towards older filmgoers believing the Vietnam War was worthy of support, if not a minor easily fixable conflict: certainly in the way events and key players are handled, the film’s message seems to say ‘If you don’t listen to the people, continue to commit men & women to an unnecessary war, and get advice from untested amateurs, you’ll suffer a political and national mess whose repercussions will linger for decades.’

Schaffner’s subsequent films would be a peculiar mix of highs (Papillon, the sleazy yet delicious The Boys from Brazil) and lows (Sphinx, Yes, Giorgio), whereas producer Spiegel couldn’t quite survive outside of the costly and soon to be outmoded epic genre, making only two films before his death in 1985 – the somber The Last Tycoon (1976), and the Harold Pinter drama Betrayal (1983). Robert Massie’s biography Peter the Great was also adapted into a stellar, epic TV mini-series in 1986.

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

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