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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>
"Anastasia" is not a film for everyone. Those who insist on historical accuracy in films depicting real people and events would do best to stay away from the movie house altogether. "Anastasia," however, is not exactly about real people, although it does incorporate the lives of real humans and parallels with their true stories to depict a compelling "what-if" scenario and this is incredibly effective, even after DNA tests have revealed that "Anna Anderson" was definitely not Anastasia Nikolavena Romanov but instead, in all likelihood a Kashubian factory worker. (I am unaware whether she ever used the name "Anna Koreff.")
As a matter of fact, those who are familiar with the real story are in for an even grander treat. We are thrown into 1928 Paris with a brief shot of this wretched madwoman at Russian Easter, lonely and rejected outside the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and on the brink of suicide, and we are definitely prepared to think of see as the impostor that "Anna Anderson" was. Yet as the film progresses, we are shown a woman quite literally without any past. Michael Thornton opined of the real "Anna Anderson," "Somewhere along the way she lost and rejected (Kashubian factory worker Franziska) Schanzkowska. She lost that person totally and accepted completely she was this new person."
Ingrid Bergman's Anna Koreff, however, is not simply mentally lost: the world has lost her as well. It helps, perhaps, that Bergman is infinitely more convincing as a princess than as a vagabond, and the retrospective certitude of the falsity of "Anna Anderson"'s claim helps to disguise her limits at the beginning of the film when, like Yul Brynner's General Bounine, we are meant to doubt her identity. Bounine creates Koreff's new identity as the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and so effectively that he begins to believe in it himself. But the entirely unsolvable questions remain:
Is Anna Koreff Anastasia? Does she actually believe she is Anastasia? More ominously, whoever she is, does she even truly and consciously remember?
This piece carefully avoids resolving these questions. On the one hand, the speed and thoroughness with which she slides into her new role is difficult to explain and impossible to deny. On the other hand, the ending (among other things) is cleverly constructed so as to expose her assumed royal identity as a construction. This is not, of course, the real story, and in the post-1900 world, such a thorough and complete break with any sort of past anchor is next to impossible. But if it happened... this may be just how it happened.
"Anastasia" is above all a beautifully designed film, full of elegance and taste. Ingrid Bergman is as beautiful as the interior architecture against which she assumes her royal identity. Again, it is not a film for everyone: many will have great difficulty connecting and sympathizing with the royal circles and personalities in this tome, but those who are able to understand pre-modern, pre-liberal (c.f. human) sensibilities will love it. Helen Hayes is absolutely perfect and inspiring as the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (it is plain to see how the real Empress was so beloved in her adopted Russia), and her chemistry with Bergman is incredible to behold. The only thing I can find to critique is that the script--and to some extent a steely wall between Bergman and Brynner--does not fully back up the eventual culmination of the relationship between Koreff and Bounine; the conclusion fits quite well thematically but is mildly illogical with regard to the plot. Still, this is a minor complaint, as "Anastasia" is first and foremost a film about identity, and one that will jar and confound its viewers time and again.
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