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May 22, 2013

Movie Review: Nicholas and Alexandra (Blu-ray)

Review by Greg Goodsell

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

At the turn of the 20th century, the Russian Czars were as criminally out of touch with their people as the French Aristocracy was in the 18th century before the advent of the guillotine. The unprepared and na├»ve Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) along with his German-born wife Alexandra (Janet Suzman) are young, in love and responsible for the deaths of countless millions of Russians, due to unsuccessful wars fought abroad and the ruthless exploitation of the working class. Finally producing a male heir after producing four very spoiled princesses, they learn that the heir apparent, thanks to generations of inbreeding, is a hemophiliac. Rising to the challenge of being both spiritual adviser and miracle worker to their ailing son is Mad Monk Rasputin (played by the fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, in a bravura performance), a most unholy holy man who outdoes the televangelists of today with his rampant alcoholism and womanizing. With the advent of World War I, things for the Romanov Royal Family begin to unravel quickly. Besting Germany only by the size of its – mostly unarmed army, millions of Russian troops begin to die on the battlefield due to being allotted only three bullets a day. The Bolsheviks, comprised of idealists such as Lenin and even far worse despots such as Stalin, begin their revolution. Rasputin is killed, and there is growing international pressure on Nicholas to abdicate. After doing so reluctantly, he and his wife, son, daughters and loyal household help hurtle inexorably to their appointment with a firing squad …

Seen by many as producer Sam Spiegel's answer to Dr. Zhivago (1965), after his falling out with director David Lean, Nicholas and Alexandra must have been seen as an anomaly at the time of its release in 1971. Alongside such game-changers as Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, Nicholas and Alexandra was probably brushed aside as yet another stodgy costume drama. Doing mediocre business at the box office and garnering mostly mixed reviews, the three-hour-plus production won Academy Awards for its costume design and art direction. Indeed, the film does seem to be from a faraway era. The Blu-Ray from Twilight Time retains the Intermission at the midway mark, with the orchestral music left intact in its entirety. At the same time, however, it is the antithesis of the usual Hollywood blockbuster. All the sweep and pageantry is over and done with at the two-hour mark, and as the Romanovs struggle to survive, locating from one dismal rural outpost to the next, the mood is oppressively doom and gloom laden. Their once lavish lifestyles reduced to scrounging for food, their formerly beautiful clothes becoming shabby and worn, the couple, along with their children are beset by a world where they have long outstayed their welcome. The last few moments where they await their execution at a distant country home, its windows painted over to conceal the family from the glimpses of an angry mobs, is marked with repeated dashed hopes coupled with only the most minute tender mercies of the wicked. No one will leave this film with a satisfied smile.  

Director Schaffner, coming from his highly acclaimed film of Patton (1970), cast two unknowns in the leads. Both Layton and Suzman were lights of the British stage, but had done too few little films before and since. To compensate, the cast is awash with countless British film acting mainstays such as Jack Hawkins, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and of course, Tom Baker. Ian (Alien) Holm in an early role makes a highly lasting impression as a revolutionary who hurries the Romanovs to their destinies. While the royal family – along with the film to a certain extent, seems to court sympathies, Holm is very much aware of the fact that their rigid adherence to divine rule and overall ineptitude has devastated Russia, and is trying to remain civil until someone else deals the final blow.

The Twilight Time Blu-Ray boasts an immaculate transfer and an isolated music score. There is the original theatrical trailer and three making of featurettes.  “Changing Faces” is about he extensive makeup, beards and wigs used to recreate Edwardian Russia; “Royal Daughters,” narrated by Lynne Frederick and takes a look at the four young actresses playing the young Tsarinas; and “The Royal Touch” about the Oscar winning costumes seen in the film.

Limited to only 3,000 copies, Nicholas and Alexandra is a must-own for any film fan.

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