Saturday, 30 October 2010

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

Former TV director Franklin J. Schaffner had climbed to the top of the Hollywood pyramid helming galumphing great studio productions like Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970), by applying the lightest gilding of New Wave style to them, in creative zoom shots and expressive lensing, snappy rhythmic editing, and restrained use of sound overlaid upon discursive vision. Such effects imbued these projects with a cinematic sprightliness, whilst still conveying a lustrous scale inherent in their imagery, subjects, and budgets. Nicholas and Alexandra on the other hand saw Schaffner embracing what might be kindly called a new classicism, and produced a mammoth slice of imitation David Lean. Considering that this film was produced by Lean's prior collaborator by Sam Spiegel, it’s tempting to think of Nicholas and Alexandra as Spiegel’s attempted revenge on former collaborator Lean for making Doctor Zhivago for Carlo Ponti. Speigel and Schaffner approached a touchy but widely familiar subject, encompassing the fall of the Romanovs and the ride of Bolshevist Communism in Russia, into a blockbuster epic. The result represents a definite turning point for that genre of prestigious cinema, eternally admired or derided depending on one's cultural stripes: the historical epic. Nicholas and Alexandra is balanced halfway between the romanticised, pictorial rhapsodies of Lean, Wyler, Von Sternberg and others, and the more modern, domesticated historical portraiture found in the likes of Gandhi (1982), The Young Victoria (2009), or The Iron Lady (2011), films that focus squarely on individuals around whom history pivots in dryly realistic studies.

That’s a fancy way of saying that there’s a lot of talking in Nicholas and Alexandra, which, in spite of encompassing one of history’s great slaughters and most important revolutions, rests its focus squarely on its titular characters, whose political missteps are viewed as part and parcel with their psychological faults. Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) is beset by a fixated desire to live up to his father’s supposed power and quality in keeping Russia from enter the modern world, continually emphasised by his mother (Irene Worth). He and his wife, the German-born Alexandra (Janet Suzman), are in the first half of the film alternately shrill and neurotic, and then loving and appreciative. Their qualities as individuals and as a couple are distorted and submerged by their inadequacy as politicians and public persons. Nicholas’s eyes turn bright and glassy with fanatical yet peevish assertion when he’s trying to prove himself an effective ruler. Alexandra caves in immediately to hysteria whenever her son Alexei’s (Roderic Noble) congenital haemophilia rears its head: the collision of duty and care is particularly excruciating when both parents have to maintain a stoic façade whilst farewelling soldiers for the front lines of WW1, having just received word that Alexei’s having a potentially fatal attack.

Nicholas and Alexandra does render its title duo sympathetic, but James Goldman’s script is keenest in noting the way their personal qualities translate into bad government. Where the ferocity of the royal family’s individual members in Goldman’s The Lion in Winter (1968) made for ugly relationships and robust empire-building, here the essential lack of imagination, flexibility, cunning, and wisdom conspire to render Nicholas and Alexandra as living jokes, finally caged alive by the remnants of their grandeur on a series of ever-shrinking stages. The scene of Nicholas’s return to his wife, after being forcibly dethroned in the February Revolution, is a splendid piece of pathetic acting from Jayston and a grimly unique kind of climax, where this potentate is reduced to sobbing like a little boy afraid of a maternal slapping. Here all the unfairness of arbitrary hereditary rule, both to ruler and the ruled, seems to fall like a weight on his body. It’s only later, when he’s been divested of all power, that Nicholas comes into his own as a noble friend to those loyal to him, and a skilled diplomat, and finally as a kind of accidental poet.

This intelligible character portrait of the titular duo anchors a film that’s uncertain what approach to take in portraying a fraught historical epoch. Nicholas and Alexandra belongs to a run of wayward epics of its era that fragmented under the pressure of tackling too large a subject, and trying to sell serious historiography in bestseller terms. In spite of the scope of production, most of the film is flatly conversational, even stagy, and there’s no conceptual nimbleness to the drama. Early on, Schaffner and Goldman set up a potentially fruitful dialectic structure in which scenes of the current Tsar are juxtaposed with portrayals of the Bolsheviks – Lenin (Michael Bryant), Trotsky (Brian Cox), Stalin (James Hazeldine), Mme Krupskaya (Vivian Pickles) – whose initial, low-rent revolutionary plans seem doomed to subsist in smelly little boarding houses and ill-attended meetings. There’s a dash of humour in Stalin pathetically intoucing himself to Lenin and apologising for not being able to vote for him in a committee election, and pathos in Lenin’s prickly relationship with Krupskaya, whom he patronises but also confesses his anxiety over his wasted potential to. Unfortunately, this counterpointing is undeveloped. The film later on settles for blandly iconic Soviet propaganda images of Lenin arriving in Moscow and giving victory speeches. Even less successful, although nobly attempted, are attempts at a broader social portraiture, with vignettes of factory worker Petya (John Shrapnel) and his wife Sonya (Diana Quick) following priest Gapon (Julian Glover) in a march on the Tsar’s palace in the heady climate of 1905, only to be cut down in a volley by overzealous soldiers. Swiftly glimpsed portrayals of factory squalor suggest less the grind of oppressive poverty than the clueless perspective of a Hollywood approximation of it, dirty people doing dirty, unspecific tasks.

Schaffner’s appropriations of marble and crystal ballrooms, majestic snowy landscapes and grand steppe vistas, shot by Lean’s great cinematographer Freddie Young, don’t count for much because they’re generally just window dressing, and his filmmaking had becalmed into the largely stodgy competence that Schaffner would bring to the rest of his output. The scope of the narrative is colossal, and it’s almost unavoidable to note that Nicholas, Alexander, and their whelps are practically the least interesting part of this story, which proceeds in disjointed, diorama-like quality until the last third. Nonetheless, Schaffner squeezes some flavourful moments here and there: an officer shooting himself after sending his men to the front line; Nicholas’s chief advisor Count Witte (Laurence Olivier) near-tearfully warning of apocalypse as the only logical outcome of the Great War that’s just commenced thanks to Nicholas and his cousin Wilhelm II’s posturing; Rasputin (Tom Baker), after confessing his human frailty to Alexandra, nonetheless summoning the words of a true seer in a shadow-drenched church, communicating the illusion of his being a raft of faith in a sea of fear; Nicholas’ soldiers shouting a salute to him from within a fog-choked forest, standing in for all the ghostly remnants of Russian military catastrophe. Baker brightens up the diffuse, tonally uncertain first half of the film considerably with his self-dramatising Rasputin, with his bundling of greedy, guilty sensuality and spellbinding belief in his own blessedness. Perhaps inevitably for a film made in 1971, Schaffner and Goldman are altogether more indulgent of Rasputin as a kind of countercultural swami – dig his orgy with a batch of porn-movie Russian peasant lasses in a hay cart to the shock of a religious old mamma - who invites destruction for his naked contempt for propriety and disdain for the Russian establishment he sees as straitjacketing the true mission of the Holy Tsar.

His assassination makes for a strange sequence, his killers Prince Yusupov and Duke Dmitri Pavlovich (Martin Potter and Richard Warwick) portrayed as queeny libertines who bring out the pansexual beast in Rasputin in dressing up a musician in drag to dance before him. Rasputin, in drunken hilarity, tries to snare this prey before realising he’s been poisoned through the chocolates he’s been scarfing down. Other efforts to explore sexuality are equally clumsy, even more so later when it tries to explore the increasingly forlorn situation of the princesses – Olga (Ania Marson), Tatiana (Lynne Frederick), Marie (Candace Glendenning), and Anastasia (Fiona Fullerton) – whom, cheated of their usual surrounds and expectations, come of age surrounded by lumpen soldiers who make rude come-ons, and Tatiana makes a clumsy gambit of her own. The film’s on more solid ground in the increasingly angry, sullen behaviour of Alexei and his resentment of his father who signed away his kingdom, and Nicholas’s efforts to maintain a bond with him.

With a film sporting a cast as awe-inspiring as this one, there’s almost always someone catching the eye. Virtually every part, no matter how minor, seems to be filled by an class actor, some there for star value – Olivier, Jack Hawkins, Michael Redgrave – and others who were just starting out on long careers, like Cox, Shrapnel, and Ian Holm, as the severe and unforgiving but reliably dutiful Yakovlev, a Bolshevik entrusted to get the Romanovs back to Moscow but who runs afoul of a politicking faction. John McEnery is strong as Kerensky, the ill-fated intermediate voice of democracy. Whilst the remainder of the film misses Rasputin’s inherent colour and Baker’s performance after his murder, nonetheless it actually improves as it goes on. The somewhat specious, splashy portrayal of pre-Revolution high life and statesmanship, full of celebrity cameos and frustrating time jumps, deepens and emboldens in entering the final phases of the Romanovs’ lives, once they're forced out of Moscow. This is particularly true in the very last half-hour, slowing into real time menace as the Romanovs half-knowingly approach their end in a drab cellar, their firing squad led by an old man (Alan Webb) who has no idea any longer what constitutes right and wrong.

There’s potency in this tale about the total dissolution of all social and ethical institutions when all have been found wanting, that the film only realises in flashes, as in these scenes, which benefit from a docudrama immediacy, drawing out the proto-Kafka horror of infinite space, embodied by the Russian landscape, being swapped for the intimate cruelty of humankind as played out by petty bureaucrats. The attempt to find solace in suggesting the Romanovs most truly became themselves just before dying is sentimentally appealing, if a bit gauche. Nicholas and Alexander would have been a much better movie by being less middle of the road. It should have either remained tightly focused on the psyches of its main characters, or sprawled out in pop-art illustrative fashion a la Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), although there is the faintest dash of this in scenes in which Nicholas farewells his soldiers, and Schaffner cuts to each national leader of the Great War’s combatant nations, all of them fading into monochrome, iconic irrelevance. As it is, it’s the archetypal movie fit for watching in high school history class. Yes, I did once. As cinema, it’s not satisfying, but it’s still engrossing.


Greg said...

Great screengrabs at the end there, Rod. I've never seen this and up to now, had no desire but I might enjoy watching the Rasputin hippie-swami scenes after reading your descriptions. Otherwise, though, big historical epics tend to overstay their welcome with me. I always enjoy the setups, like the first half of Lawrence of Arabia, more than the denouement.

Also, excellent use of the word "titular." Don't you wish there was a word "assular" as well?

Roderick Heath said...

Yeah, I'm probably going to post of my screenshots in this fashion - I always end up taking great stacks of them for reviews, and have previously only used a handful, which always feels like a bit of a waste when I like to try and give a feel for the visual texture of films.

The hippie-swami bits are very, very brief and mild. Fair warning.

I completely, intensely, will-beat-you-to-death-with-a-shovel disagree with you about Lawrence, which deepens and turns bleak as it goes on, but I know what you mean otherwise about the set-up/denouement problem of a lot of epics. Actually, I find that fault chiefly with the big musicals of the '50s and '60s - e.g. West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Oliver! etc, where so much effort goes into colossal set-piece numbers in the first half that they then tend to peter out into the limpest of limp wrap-ups. However, as I've said above, N&A is one of the rare ones that improves as it goes along. It's all over the place at the outset, but gains power and confidence in narrowing the focus.

"Also, excellent use of the word "titular." Don't you wish there was a word "assular" as well?"

In the voice of Glynn Edwards in Zulu: You slovenly critic!

Greg said...

I wrote about it in June here. Scan the comments for Ed Howard who was in agreement. So that's two of us you'll have to beat to death.

Roderick Heath said...

Yes, I read that at the time.

Don't drag Ed into this. Since when have I ever cared about consensus?

Sam Juliano said...

You know what Rod? The fact that it's unsatifying in a strict cinematic sense means virtually little the way I see it. As you subsequently pointed out it's an engrossing lesson, and wile I was already 18 when it was released my high school senior year (hense I could never have watched it in school) the film's theatrical viewing left me quite devastated. I have since watched it many time, and continu to marvel over Shaffner's wintry vistas (a la David Lean) and the performances of Tom Baker and Janet Suzman. Jayston is flovourless, but history tells us that Tsar Nicholas II was as well. Rasputin's death scene and the final moments of the life of the royal family are just unforgettable set pieces - yes you are right when you concede that the film gets better as it moves along - but it does paint a compelling portrait of one of history's most fascinating families - and one of the most eerily compelling relationships (that between Rasputin and the Tsarina) is true epic fashion.

There's a true and unexpected intimacy in this NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA and it makes for a surprisingly emotional experience.

Sam Juliano said...

Yeah the screen shots are definitely spectacular. They have me convinced to watch this yet again this week!

Roderick Heath said...

Hmmm...well, Sam, all I can say is that this defines for me the gap between what truly inspired filmmaking (Lean) can achieve versus the limited reflexes of sophisticated pastiche. But that's far from saying it's a worthless film. Merely not a great one.

Groggy Dundee said...

Beautiful review. I caught the last hour of this movie on Cinemoi last night, it having been years since I'd seen it. Very pretty, impeccably acted, but extremely stiff. No real drama, just people and costumes posing like figures in a tableaux.

I read Massie's book not long ago. An excellent (though dated) piece of work, but not really cinematic: it's so detailed that a three hour film couldn't possibly do it justice. Maybe a miniseries would have worked better? It mainly feels like Spiegel/Schaffner/et al bit off more than they could chew.

I like your comments re: Spiegel trying to one up David Lean. Not only Freddie Young but John Box and Eddie Fowlie also worked on the movie!

Anne Maudelilacs said...

Hello--and as some of your other readers have noted, great screenshots of my all-time favorite movie. I thought you and your readers might like to know that a specialty DVD/Blu-ray label, Twilight Time, has released "Nicholas and Alexandra" in a beautiful Blu-ray edition that features three featurettes produced at the time of the film's original release in December 1971; isolated score; subtitles; and an extensive essay booklet by Julie Kirgo of Twilight Time. The Blu-ray edition sells for $29.95, and is for sale by Screen Archives Entertainment, Twilight Time's exclusive distributor. Lastly, all Twilight Time releases are strictly limited to 3,000 units. You can get more information about Twilight Time through its vibrant and devoted community at I hope that you and your readers will find this helpful. The "Nicholas and Alexandra" Blu-ray transfer looks fantastic--a massive improvement over its prior DVD, laserdisc, and VHS releases!!!! All the best, and kindest regards, Anne