We have always had a certain fascination with royalty. Little girls dream of being princesses, men want to be king of their castle. Right now the whole world is buzzing about a new royal wedding in the works. But what about Russian royalty? Ah, that’ll put a damper on your game of Pretty Pretty Princess. Let’s just substitute that dainty tiara for a warm ushanka to wear on your Siberian holiday. The fact is, most Americans can’t tell you three facts about Russia. So watching Nicholas and Alexandra would be a much needed history lesson.
The story is of the rein of Czar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) and his wife Alexandra (Janet Suzman). They have finally produced a son and heir to the throne, Alexis (Roderic Noble), but he has hemophilia, a condition where the blood does not clot correctly. Consequently, the child is sick often and every little cut could be life threatening. All the attention spent on little Alexis seems to distract Nick and Alex from their duties as monarchs. Instead of listening to their advisers and their angry citizens, they seek the advice of Rasputin (Tom Baker), a mystic man whom Alexandra believes has abilities to heal their son. They don’t even realize the revolution brewing until it is too late. Nick just doesn’t seem to know what to do except mobilize his troops and cause Germany to declare war. As WWI is raging, the government is overthrown by the Socialists and Nick has to renounce the throne. Do most Americans even know what happened in WWI?
Alright, I’ll pause the history lecture, this is a movie. It’s three hours long but doesn’t feel like an epic, just trying to be. I think of Russia as a huge, expansive country and within it’s cities is beautiful architecture from all different periods in the same place. Yet, this film keeps us contained. All the palace scenes may have been in a lavish setting, the costumes are exquisite, but it feels like we’re cramped in a little studio. Even when the camera takes us outdoors it feels like there’s no room to move, the fog in forest can really foreshorten everything.
Tom Baker’s Rasputin is so odd. He’s portrayed as a drifter and an obviously a crazy man who believes himself to be a holy healer. I got a kick about his womanizing and drinking too much vodka. That moment when he pops out of the hay naked and yells at a nun is priceless. I can understand portraying a man who has become a legend in such a flamboyant way, but his sudden opium party with young men who seem to be homosexuals leading right into his death is too much.
On one level, this film seems like it could be a great portrayal of the tragic story behind Russia’s last royal family, but it loses focus trying to get us to understand all the political reasons behind it. If it could clean up the beginning a bit more, so that we can understand the whole whirlwind of the revolution and Rasputin’s role in starting the war, the whole story would run smoother. Until then, we all need to brush up on our Russian history.
“They’re children, and they need a Czar! They need tradition. Not this! They’re the victims of agitators. A Duma would make them bewildered and discontented. And don’t tell me about London and Berlin.”