Epic, romantic biography of the marriage and final years of the last Romanov dynasty, Emperor Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) and his Tsarina Alexandra (Janet Suzan). Co-starring Irene Worth and Laurence Olivier.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner. (189 mins). Horizon/Columbia. (PG).
Cast & credits
Producer: Sam Spiegel.
Writer: James Goldman.
Camera: Freddie Young.
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett.
Sets: John Box.
Michael Jayston, Janet Suzman, Harry Andrews, Irene Worth, Tom Baker, Jack Hawkins, Timothy West, Jean-Claude Drouot, Ania Marson, Lynne Frederick, Candace Glendenning, Fiona Fullerton, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Maurice Denham, John McEnery, Ian Holm, John Wood, Brian Cox, Steven Berkoff, James Hazeldine, Roy Dotrice, Alexander Knox, Curd Jurgens, Julian Glover, Roderic Noble.
A biographical retelling of the last years of the Imperial Romanov family, the autocratic rulers of Russia. Tsar Nicholas II (Jayston), his beloved wife Alexandra (Suzman) and the whole of their Empire celebrate the birth of their fifth child and only son, Alexei. It transpires he has the deadly blood condition Haemophilia. As they struggle to come to terms with this and the rapidly changing political situation around them, Alexei grows into a wilful and disobedient teenager (Noble). Nicholas ignores the suggestions of various advisers and pushes his country into the First World War, with disastrous consequences for it and his family.
It’s not often I name-drop, but I saw the actress Janet Suzman at Euston station, London a few weeks back.
One of those moments where you only notice a famous person at the point you are just about the pass them.
She was going in the back way to the station and looked confused, wondering why she was there…as we all do at Euston station. I would have said hi but, alas, the moment passed too quickly as she walked past me and, I hope, onto the right train.
But, back to the review at hand…
David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965), a mammoth box office success based on Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize winning novel, confounded public expectations of what constitutes a successful epic Hollywood production by presenting love across the political divide before, during and after the Russian revolution of 1917.
A swan song for Speigel (he produced only two other films after this), this follows his more famous work in terms of production design, costuming, camerawork and epochal, history-in-the-making storyline.
Further echoing Zhivago, the core of the film is the personal, emotional drama of an extraordinary family as the wheels of politics and history whirl around them.
There are very few ‘set pieces’ for such a long epic (at 3 hours 9 minutes, it’s almost as long as the Romanov’s rule), allowing the director and his cast to concentrate on small scale, intimate performances and how the big external events affect them.
Jayston and Suzman (never better on film) are perfectly suited to play the title roles, both physically and in terms of their subtlety. Their whispered, confiding voices give extra depth to the tetchy, argumentative but loving dialogue between them. Alexandra wistfully sums up the joy and transcendental importance of her giving birth to a son and Nicholas playfully derides her in German as a dummkopf (“stupid head”/idiot).
Posterity has not painted too kind a picture of the Romanovs. It would be difficult to have anything other than a critical view of them considering that their actions, inactions and personalities destroyed their country and destabilised most of the world.
But Suzman turns the cold fish of history into a painfully shy, emotionally damaged woman speaking in hushed tones with a performance that is ethereal; it’s a thing of beauty.
Why Jayston wasn’t Oscar nominated alongside her seems like an oversight as he is just as impressive. His breakdown, when he sobs and gibbers uncontrollably to his wife after abdicating, is a devastating moment. He sinks to his knees, crook backed, he is literally a broken man. Alexandra silently mirrors him, but from a distance away, reaching across to him but not touching.
The best performance though goes to Olivier as Witte, Nicholas’ Prime Minister, a wise man who isn’t afraid to tell the autocrat the blunt truth. At this later stage in his career, Olivier was prone to outrageous and embarrassing ham (see my review of The Boys From Brazil, 1978). Here, he reasserts how masterful an actor he is and dominates every scene he is in. As Nicholas prepares to mobilise his army, a decision which precipitated WWI, Witte, now retired, implores him to reconsider. When he doesn’t, Witte walks aimlessly around the war room, dumbfounded at the decision. He talks almost to himself, ignored by the generals excited at the merest sniff of military action, as the map of Europe, a continent where those borders will soon be annihilated, is whisked away. The figures representing Nicholas’ troops are swept into storage, as disposable as the men they represent.
Schaffner’s direction is solid but, despite the key acting and impeccable production, he is unable to make the film feel special or anything other than a long haul history lesson. Everything is OK, fair, average, sometimes even good, when what was needed was a bit more pizzaz for such a lengthy film.