Three hour movies possess something special in order to convince me to devote the time. Nicholas and Alexandra was just such a film, as it not only appeases my love for royal monarchies, but it also indulges the girl in me who adored the story of the Romonov’s. Any young girl of the 1990s worth her salt saw the animated Anastasia, and sure it wasn’t accurate (I actually researched after seeing the movie, and my young brain was traumatized), but it inspired a love of the despised Russian monarchy that’s never gone away. Nicholas and Alexandra was hoped to be a Russian Lawrence of Arabia that didn’t take off, but Twilight Time has released the film on Blu-Ray, and I implore fans of epics and costumes dramas to purchase it. A sumptuous, sprawling tale of power, privilege, and despair that transcends the few historical inaccuracies to create a wonderful recreation of the Russian monarchy.
Czar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) must deal with the rising hatred to his opulent monarchy during the Russian Revolution. On the home front, he copes with the knowledge that his son has hemophilia, which Nicholas’ wife Alexandra (Janet Suzman) can’t understand.
As with all Twilight Time Blu-Rays, the transfer of Nicholas and Alexandra is gorgeous. Here, it’s necessary to emphasize the glamour which the Romanov’s wrapped themselves in. The night photography stands out the best; the shadows have varying shades and a scene at sunset is particularly exquisite. The palaces are lush and bright, while the costumes drip with jewels. The set design and costumes in this movie are appropriately ravishing since this won Oscars for Art Direction and Costume Design. The lengthy run-time, and rather convoluted plot with characters that are neither American nor British should make for a hellish slog, but I adored this movie from top to bottom. Part of that could be because I enjoy costume dramas, but another is the high quality of everything that was used to put this together. For a British production, it’s not surprising that the actors don’t speak in Russian or fake an accent. I doubt audiences would have spent three hours with Russian subtitles, or obviously fake accents. If you go in expecting the German nobles to be little removed from standard English aristocrats, you should be fine.
Nicholas and Alexandra isn’t just about a monarchy deteriorating it’s also about the family placed in the middle. The sequences with the royal family are where the meat of the film lies. We’re meant to sympathize with them, and see their intentions are noble. The children, especially, are sympathetic as they have no role in policy; they’re simply born into the family. Nicholas ends up being the hostile one, but the script writes him not devoid of emotion. He’s simply a stubborn autocrat who fears giving any concessions to his people for fear of “giving his rights away.” His motives are selfish and stubborn, but his council is really no better; they simply tell him to give the people a “taste” of what they want. It’s well-known to historians that Nicholas didn’t wish to be czar, nor did he feel he was skilled in the role. His selfish nature comes through in how comfortable he is flaunting his power. Despite wanting to spend time with his children, he can’t help but be excited when his people come out to “stand and wave.” His desire to prove himself, to make the people love him, while at the same time giving them nothing, is his downfall. Michael Jayston is a solid Nicholas. He’s not particularly impressive, especially compared to co-star Suzman, but he’s reliable.
As his better half is Janet Suzman as Alexandra. The odds aren’t in Jayston’s favor through no fault of his own (it’s not like he could have played Alexandra…it’s only 1971), but Suzman has the juicier role. Alexandra struggles to protect her only son, Alexis (Roderic Noble), who suffers from hemophilia. She harbors guilt for giving him the disease, which passes from mother to child. With that, she finds answers in the mystic Rasputin (Tom Baker). The movie never alleged anything more than Rasputin and the czarina were friends and confidants, but the way Nicholas spends so much time wrapped up in politics helps the audience see something developing. Suzman gives heart and conviction to the role of Alexandra. Her speech upon discovering Alexis’ condition is touching and pleading. It’s Academy Award worthy, which she was nominated for (she lost to Jane Fonda in Klute). Her relationship with Nicholas is cute, loving, and compassionate. If anything, her and Jayston work fantastically together and create a rounded relationship that isn’t seen in movies about regular people! There are moments where the script wants us to believe Alexandra is spoiled, but we never see it.
The plot focuses most on Rasputin, the rise and fall of the monarchy, the Romonov’s exile in various locales, and Alexis’ illness. Rasputin is a genuine character, and his story is as intriguing to see play on-screen as he was in real life. Tom Baker (Doctor freaking Who) plays Rasputin perfectly and it’s a travesty he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar that year. He eerily transforms himself into Rasputin, and yet there’s an attractive, magnetic quality to the character; it explains why Alexandra would be so drawn to him. The movie doesn’t vilify or glorify Rasputin; there’s varying shades of gray written into his character. Baker plays the role so perfectly it does become dampening to not see a full Rasputin movie with Baker at the helm. By the time Rasputin dies (sorry if I spoiled history there), you feel bad for him. You should, because the movie tweaks events to make the drunken goons who kill him to come off like incompetent lovers of violence. He gets a bulk of the movie devoted to him, but surprisingly the character everyone swirls around is Alexis. The title should include his name for how much the movie devotes to him. The four daughters, including the infamous Anastasia, are lumped into events as a group and get very minor screen-time. All anyone cares about is Alexis; whether talking about how he could die, or focusing on him doing things and getting hurt. I didn’t particularly understand why everyone had to make things about him. By the end, Nicholas is apologizing to Alexis for abdicating the throne as if Alexis is his wife! Why are you apologizing to your son? There’s four other children who are suffering as well, guess they aren’t important enough to include in this discussion.
Of course, you should be aware of how the tale ends. By the last hour, the family is drained and exhausted. A haunting scene has them laying out in the sun for their requisite moment outside as they’re continually watched by guards. You see that despite standing in the sun, there’s no glow to them; no life, no vitality, no reason to live if they’re going to be paraded from place to place. This utter hopelessness makes the ending all the more emotional because it feels undeserved. The final scene is a work of art setting up the feelings that will leave you saying, “Wow.” The camera pulls back from the door to a wide shot showing the barren room the family has been herded into. Their suitcases, the small amount of items that define them, lay stacked in a corner. The family, arranged in a deflated mock family portrait, sit. As the executioners enter and raise their guns, Alexis kisses Nicholas, and Alexandra crosses herself. They’re shot and killed with the head of the guard walking and shooting directly at the camera. The ending is a tad specious as you’re led to believe the family was gunned down with no warning. It’s been reported that someone did read a warrant decreeing their execution. Regardless, the final seconds are tangible and presented without exploitation.
The Blu-Ray includes another fantastic essay by Julie Kirgo discussing the film. There’s also an isolated soundtrack feature (seen on Pony Soldier, as well) that I recommend because the score is pounding and lovely. There’s also three featurettes, and a trailer. The movie itself is worth watching, and I recommend watching it on Blu-Ray. Nicholas and Alexandra is an elegant and all-encompassing look at the rise and fall of the royal family. The acting, particularly from Janet Suzman and Tom Baker is spellbinding. I can’t think of any more adjectives to describe it; just go buy it!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.