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Russian exiles in Paris plot to collect ten million pounds from the Bank of England by grooming a destitute, suicidal girl to pose as heir to the Russian throne. While Bounin is coaching her he comes to believe she is really Anastasia. In the end the Empress must decide her claim. Written by
Ed Stephan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Ivan Desny, who appears here as the fictional Prince Paul Von Haraldsberg, also appears in the German film Anastasia: The Czar's Last Daughter (1956) as the real-life Gleb Botkin (son of the Imperial family's doctor, who was shot along with them in 1918), a staunch supporter of Anna Anderson. See more »
We now know that the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolayevna of Russia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, along with the rest of her family. For decades, however, rumours persisted that she had survived and escaped from Russia, and the truth was not definitely established until 2007. Several impostors pretended to be her, and this film is very loosely based on the story of one of them, a woman who has become known to history as Anna Anderson, although even that was not her true name. She was probably Franziska Schanzkowska, a German factory worker of Polish descent. A second film, a cartoon also titled "Anastasia", was made in 1997 and revolved around the premise that the real Grand Duchess did indeed survive the Russian Revolution.
The story is set in Paris in 1928. A young woman, confused and suffering from amnesia, is hailed by a group of Russian expatriates, led by General Bunin, as the long-lost Anastasia. Now had the real Anastasia truly survived, she would have been invaluable to Russian émigrés as the figurehead of an anti-Communist movement, possibly even a contender for the Russian throne had the Soviet regime collapsed (as many expatriates expected it to). The group backing the claimant, however, has no political interest in her; indeed, Bunin is quite convinced that she is not the genuine Anastasia. They are simply using her to stake a claim to the 10 million pounds deposited by the Tsar with an English bank. In order to do this, however, they have to convince not only their fellow émigrés but also Anastasia's last surviving close relative, her grandmother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.
The film takes a number of liberties with history, although not quite as many as the cartoon version, which has been described as treating historical facts with "particular contempt". Very few Russian émigrés accepted "Anna Anderson" as genuine, nor did she ever meet the Dowager Empress. No evidence was found, despite rumours to the contrary, that the Tsar had ever deposited money in England. The script takes an essentially neutral stance on the question of Anna's identity; she is occasionally referred to as "Anna Koreff", but the name "Franziska Schanzkowska" is never mentioned in the film. There is, in fact, a suggestion that Anna may indeed, despite Bunin's scepticism, be the true Anastasia. (To avoid confusion, I will refer to the character as "Anna" throughout my review). .
This film marked Ingrid Bergman's comeback from her seven-year exile from Hollywood, following the exposure of her adulterous affair with Roberto Rossellini. It has certain similarities with her last American film before that exile, Hitchcock's "Under Capricorn". In both films Bergman's character starts off as an insecure, mentally disturbed young woman and gradually grows in stature throughout the film, ending as someone much more assured and self-confident. Bergman is well able to portray both the tormented Anna of the early scenes and the regal, dignified young woman, who may indeed be a genuine royal, of the later ones. I would not agree with the criticism that at 41 she was too old for the role. Certainly, the real Anastasia, had she lived, would only have been 27 in 1928, but Franziska Schanzkowska (if she was indeed "Anna Anderson") was several years older than the woman whose identity she assumed, and Bergman looked considerably younger than her years.
The big weakness in Bergman's performance is that there is little chemistry between her and Yul Brynner, even though a romantic interest is supposed to be developing between their characters, and this is a major plot point at the end of the film. Brynner, too, is far more convincing as Bunin the wily schemer than he is as Bunin the lover. The best of the supporting cast is Helen Hayes as the imperious Dowager Empress.
Bergman won her second Academy Award for Best Actress (her first had been for "Gaslight"), but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this award was given less for the merits of her performance than as Hollywood's way of making amends for the shabby way she had been treated over the Rossellini affair. Mind you, I cannot think of any really great performances by a female star in 1956, and this was far from being the most eccentric decision taken by the Academy in that year. (They gave Brynner "Best Actor" ahead of Kirk Douglas in "Lust for Life", not for this film but for "The King and I", nominated Katharine Hepburn for "Best Actress" for "The Rainmaker" despite her being horribly miscast, and even Don Murray's dreadful performance in "Bus Stop" was felt worthy of a nomination for "Best Supporting Actor").
Another weakness in the film is that it was all too obviously adapted from a stage-play. Not all films which start life as a theatrical production are necessarily bad ones, and there were some very good ones in the fifties such as "A Streetcar Named Desire". Too often, however, producers and directors of the 1950s adapting stage-plays for the screen failed to open up the action to take advantage of the greater freedoms offered by the cinematic medium, and the result was often a cramped, static film, with "The Rainmaker" being a particularly egregious example. Even a great director like Alfred Hitchcock was not exempt from this fault, as shown by his "Dial M for Murder". Anatole Litvak occasionally tries to open things up here, especially in the spectacular ball scenes, but in general "Anastasia" still seems too narrow and stage-bound, too dominated by talk with insufficient action. 5/10
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