Anastasia (1956)

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Anastasia (1956) Review


This is the earlier, and definitely not animated, version of the story of the hunt for Anastasia Romanov, daughter of the Tsar who, according to legend, was the only member of the royal family to survive their massacre by revolutionaries in 1917. Anastasia starts off in the late 1920s among the exiled White Russian community in Paris, who rather obsessively keep their country's customs alive in a foreign place. Certain entrepreneurs in the community, including a disgraced former general, Prince Bounine (Yul Brynner), have been trying for years to discover a trainable woman with a close-enough resemblance to Anastasia that she could pass for the real thing - and collect 10 million pounds of Russian royal money sitting in a London bank. Bounine and his compatriots recruit the homeless and rather insane Ingrid Bergman for the task and start about molding her to pass muster before the exiles who knew the real Anastasia and who will, hopefully, sign testimonies to her identity. The twist is that Bergman at times actually thinks she is Anastasia.

There would have been plenty of opportunity for some My Fair Lady-type hijinks in the early part of this remarkably-controlled film, with Brynner playing the stern taskmaster and Bergman the not-so-ugly duckling about to transform into a swan. But director Anatole Litvak keeps everything measured and reasonably serious, focusing more on Bergman's dementia than the perfunctory romance that supposedly blossoms between her and Brynner. Bergman's performance (which won her an Oscar) has its hammy "look at me!" moments, but they're shrewdly undercut by the surrounding characters' suspicion that she is inventing not just her past as Anastasia but her entire dementia as well.

What is unfortunate about the film - and the probable reason why Fox amped everything up, including the addition of Rasputin, for Don Bluth's animated 1997 version - is its staginess (the script was adapted from a play) and lack of momentum. There are so many different areas that the film could have delved into, most especially the aftereffects of the Russian revolution and civil war, which were still just barely in the past at the time the story was set. The script tosses off some caustic asides about the White Russian exiles' tendency to live in the past and a reference to the Empress Dowager (Helen Hayes) "playing solitaire with her memories," but the script is mostly content to leave us in different rooms where Bergman and Brynner circle each other anxiously, parrying with exquisitely-worded dialogue. All the actors put in fine work, especially Hayes, who is given most of the film's best lines ("At your age, sex should only be a gender"), which she delivers with Maggie Smith-like vinegar.

Sumptuous production values (including an Oscar-winning score by Alfred Newman) are another very redeeming feature, and they are excellently presented on the crystal-clear transfer used for the Fox DVD release, which also includes an A&E Biography about the real Anastasia, and Movietone newsreels that include Romanov family footage. But this is one historical mystery that is often not mysterious and too unconcerned with history.



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