5 October 2002 | GulyJimson
Among the last of the "thinking man's epics" and one of the best.
At the time of it's release in December of 1971, "Nicholas and Alexandra" must have seemed like an anachronistic piece of film-making, especially when compared with fellow Best Picture Nominees, "A Clockwork Orange", "The French Connection" and "The Last Picture Show". Based on a best-selling work of popular history, it was film making on a grand scale, boasting for it's cast a veritable who's who of the English speaking stage, a sweeping love story spanning many years, thrown over thousands of miles, using the conflict of World War I and the Russian Revolution as it's background. It must have seemed to many like the best film David Lean never made. And superficially it does resemble Lean's epic of a few years earlier, "Doctor Zhivago". Indeed three of Lean's close associates, Producer Sam Spiegel, Production Designer John Box, and Cinematographer, Freddie Young all shine in this production. Unfortunately having arrived late in the historical epic film cycle, it was largely dismissed at the time of it's release by critics, but time has revealed it's many virtues.
Produced with lavish care and attention to detail by Sam Spiegel for Horizon Pictures, "Nicholas and Alexandra" is among the last of the great "thinking man's epics" and one of the best. This is due in no small measure to the wonderful screenplay by James Goldman. Goldman, who also scripted "The Lion in Winter" and "Robin and Marian" had a fine ear for dialogue, and "Nicholas and Alexandra" is a pleasure to listen to as well as to behold. Like Robert Bolt's "Lawrence of Arabia", Charles Wood's "Charge of the Light Brigade" and Robert Ardrey's "Khartoum", all fine historical epics, Goldman's "Nicholas and Alexandra" is elevated by an intelligent script laced with fine dialogue. Transposing history onto the screen is never an easy task, but the story of the last years of the Romanov Dynasty is well served by Goldman. He skillfully telescopes events, while still remaining basically true to historic fact. One way or another, all films dealing with history compromise fact for drama. The best of them achieve a balance between the two. Those pedants who quibble over this fact of life, please refer to the historical plays of Shakespeare for it's validation.
Among the film's many pleasures is the high level of acting by an impressive cast. Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman are simply magnificent in the lead roles. It was an uncanny and bold choice using two unknowns to star in a film of this scope, and they have no problems carrying the three hour film. Both create complex, three-dimensional characters, deeply flawed, yet appealing, sympathetic and infuriating. it is the film's unwillingness to portray them as simply victims that gives it tragic grandeur. A special note must be made of Tom Baker's performance as Rasputin. Too often in previous movies film-makers have exploited the sensational events of the man's life and nothing more. This film actually had the courage to downplay those lurid elements, striving instead for complexity of character. Here we have a tortured individual, a charlatan and a monk, lascivious yet craving spiritual redemption. The Imperial Children are also sensitively depicted, with a standout performance by Roderic Noble as the hemophiliac only son, Alexis. The internal angst he brings to the part in his later scenes is impressive. Franklin J. Schaffner's able direction keeps the film moving along, and at no time is there any danger of the film losing focus on the two leads. This was no mean feat considering the powerhouse supporting cast that included, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Harry Andrews, Irene Worth, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Michael Bryant, Brian Cox, Eric Porter, Timothy West, Peter McEnery, Julian Glover, Roy Dotrice, Maurice Denham, Alan Webb, Guy Rolfe, Steven Berkof and John Wood, all of whom do memorable turns.
In the first half of the movie, the filmmakers vividly bring to life the isolated fairy-tale world the Imperial Family inhabited. The beautiful palaces, and villas provide a striking contrast to the shabby, squalid prison quarters of the film's second half, which deals largely with the Romanov's exile and imprisonment in Siberia. The murder of the Royal Family in the basement of the Ipatiev house, the so called "House of Special Purpose" is one of the most strikingly directed scenes in the film. The brutal suddenness with which it is depicted packs quite a wallop. Filmed in Panavision, the film is gorgeous to look at. John Box's recreation of Imperial Russia at the turn of the century truly deserved it's Academy Award for Best Production Design, as did Yvonne Blake for Best Costume Design. Freddie Young's stunning cinematography and Richard Rodney Bennett's haunting music score were also nominated, though they both lost to other films. Finally it is a beautifully edited film, a marvelous example of invisible editing used to create a subtle, but powerful sense of irony. A superb film that deals intelligently with the problems inherent in transposing history onto film.