Wednesday 13 November 2013

Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

When I was quite a young child, I was fascinated and disturbed by the ends of two films that I had seen on TV.  One ended with a giant dinosaur being burnt to death in a church.  I never found out what that film was.  The other ended with the Tsar of Russia being taken to a house where all the windows were painted up so nobody could see in or out, and the family eventually being placed in a room and shot to death.  That film was 'Nicholas and Alexandra'.

Recently I found it again, on VHS in a charity shop, and was delighted to find that its three stars were all actors I very much like to watch.  Most obviously Tom Baker IS Rasputin.  This was three years before he was famous, and at this point he was still a really good actor.  He was as good as this when he started being The Doctor in 1974 - he's at the top of his game in 'Terror of the Zygons' and 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', for instance, but stayed in the role long enough to grow bored and tired, and rarely took a dramatic role seriously again.  But here he is, before all that, scintillating in the role of Rasputin, that most maligned of holy men.  Rasputin was not mad nor a monk, nor a monster - he was a fascinating man, a constant pilgrim, who struggled with his faith and (apparently genuine) powers.  Unlike Hammer Horror's schlocky take on him, this film gives us the historical Rasputin, a far more interesting and tragic person, and one I hope to meet some day, when we're all dead.

Secondly, there's Janet Suzman as Alexandra, the Tsaritsa.  When I think of eighties women, Janet Suzman always comes to mind for her performance in 1986 TV serial 'The Singing Detective', with her strong, cold, muscular manner, her big red hair.  There's an amazing, disconcerting strength to her that's evident here and in 'The Draughtsman's Contract' (1982?), and I think it a pity she isn't more famous.

Third, there's Michael Jayston as Tsar Nicholas.  He gives a quiet performance in the role of Russia's doomed Tsar.  Nicholas II is often presented as a cruel oppressor, but this film shows him as a man trying to be a good, kind leader, who wants to protect his family and preserve his power, that he might some day pass it to his haemophiliac son.  He doesn't understand his people, and he's terrible at taking advice.  I know Michael Jayston best as The Valeyard, that sarcastic, villainous barrister in 1986's 'Trial of a Time Lord', but he's given a far more emotional role here.  There's a scene after his forced abdication when he comes home to Alexandra and just weeps and weeps.  It's a terrible thing to behold.  I understand he recently reprised the role in an audio-drama entitled 'Tsar Wars' opposite Tom Baker as a robotic Rasputin.  I have not so far sought it out.

Nicholas and Alexandra, their daughters, their son, their doctor, waiting.
That would be quite a cast, but there's also Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm, Eric Porter, Julian Glover, Timothy West, Steven Berkoff and so on.  It's a handy hub when calculating actors' degrees of separation.

It's a very serious film, but a very interesting one.  It's quite an education, and a really devastating tragedy.  This was a terrible time to be Russian, and it only grows worse as the Tsar sends his nation into the first world war, and so seals his fate.  From the intermission to the Tsar and his family's long-drawn-out murder in the House of Special Purpose, this is a catalogue of disaster.  The Tsar makes this catastrophe, and it falls on him very heavily.  Not lightly do I compare anything to 'Downfall' (2004), but this is as close as I have seen a British film come to those depths, the gruelling horror of history.

P.S. When I die I want to die like Rasputin: poisoned with cyanide and shot with guns and stubbornly staying alive to prophesy terrible doom, before being bludgeoned to death with chains.  This film really stuck with me.  What a time in history.

Why not watch this film?  It's in English, so you've no real excuse not to.  Don't watch it if you're unhappy, though.

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