Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

          Writer James Goldman, the older brother of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid scribe William Goldman, made his name with the play and screenplay The Lion in Winter (released as a film in 1968), which dramatized the life of England’s King Henry II. He then spent much of his career exploring similarly lofty historical subjects, and Goldman’s ability to blend the personal and political is on full display in the downbeat epic Nicholas and Alexandra, which depicts the doomed reign of Russia’s last tsar. Nicholas Romanoff (Michael Jayston) is the product of a 300-year dynasty, an insulated royal so oblivious to his people’s suffering that he blithely extends military conflicts out of personal pride. He’s also preoccupied with his loving marriage to Alexandra (Janet Suzman), a foreign-born aristocrat who engenders only enmity from the Russian populace, so when the couple’s son, Alexis, is diagnosed with hemophilia, they lose virtually all connection with life outside the palace. Meanwhile, ambitious politicians including Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant) carefully transform public rage into the seeds of revolution.
          Even at a length well over three hours, Nicholas and Alexandra, based on the book of the same name by Robert K. Massie, tackles an enormous amount of history; some viewers will get lost amidst the huge cast of characters and the shifting backdrops of social change. Also problematic is director Franklin J. Schaffner’s regal style. Taking a step away from his usual robust camerawork, Schaffner shoots Nicholas and Alexandra somewhat like a play, with lengthy dialogue passages unfolding in an unhurried fashion, ornate costumes and sets allowed to overwhelm actors, and stiff blocking. The movie’s dramatic power is further muted by Jayston’s intense but quiet lead performance; although perfectly cast as an ineffectual monarch, Jayston displays a soft-spoken style that’s more soothing than invigorating.
          Nonetheless, Nicholas and Alexandra is such an ambitious and handsome production, offering so many insights into a tumultuous period, that it overcomes its weaknesses. The dialogue is consistently intelligent and probing, the intercutting between subplots is careful and logical, and the physical reality of the production is awesome—whether the setting is a barren Siberian encampment or a glorious St. Petersburg palace. Plus, the acting is uniformly good, even though most of the players are as understated as Jayston. Suzman is especially strong, playing a lioness of a mother, and future Doctor Who star Tom Baker is creepy as Alexandra’s notoriously debauched advisor, “mad monk” Rasputin. Familiar faces including Ian Holm, Laurence Olivier, and John Wood appear in the cast, though everyone takes a backseat to the leading players. While probably not exciting or lurid enough to entice viewers who are not predisposed toward historical subjects, Nicholas and Alexandra is an elegant treatment of an unusual subject: the reign of a man who didn’t understand the obligations that accompanied his crown until it was far too late.

Nicholas and Alexandra: GROOVY

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