I had long been waiting for this film to come out, the real-life
tragedy on which it is based being a subject I have done extensive
research on. It is a *beautiful* film, highlighting a heartbreaking
historical story which for too long was glossed over or justified in
Russia by Nikolai I and Stalin alike.
Aleksei Zuev gives a sensitive performance in the title role: a fragile intellectual, damaged by parental abuse and illness, but essentially good-hearted. His stress-induced alcoholism is not glossed over, and his frail appearance suggests his tuberculosis (although the film omits to show him coughing into the cherry-coloured silk handkerchiefs listed in his wardrobe). The viewer wants to protect him from harm, which is precisely the emotion Aleksei should evoke.
Viktor Stepanov is made up to look scarily like portraits of Peter I by Nikitin. His mercurial temperament - from bullying to paranoid insecurity to hale-fellow-well-met roistering - is ably conveyed. Menshikov, Ekaterina and Tolstoi scheme away in the background... This is a glittering court riddled with danger and corruption - exactly as it should be.
The opening shots of the film allude to Serov's early 20C history painting of Peter on a construction site, and there are a no. of visual references to classic paintings in the film. The use of genuine 18C Peterburg locations such as the Menshikov Palace, the Summer Palace, and the Peter and Paul Fortress is highly effective. Sadly, budget constraints clearly meant the characters' sojourn in Naples had to be omitted!
The main weaknesses in characterisation are regarding the heroine, Afrosin'ya, but that is no fault of the appealing young actress Ekaterina Kulakova. It's because the script relies on the inconsistent characterisation given her in Merezhkovskii's heavily Symbolist and misogynistic source novel, which is not borne out by the real-life Afrosin'ya's letters. I also doubt whether Peter shed many tears, but again, this is taken from Merezhkovskii. Viewers almost certainly will, though.
This is a brave movie which deserves a wider audience. Earlier film treatments of the same story, in Petrov's 'Peter the Great' and the NBC mini-series of the 1980s (which I have also reviewed), portrayed Aleksei as a furtive, scheming traitor. His depiction as a poignantly sympathetic figure is a great step forward, equivalent to the impact of Ge's 1871 painting, 'Peter I interrogates Tsarevich Aleksei at Peterhof', which is visually quoted in the film. While the Russian film industry may be hindered by financial problems it clearly can still produce good quality costume dramas with international appeal.
PLEASE PLEASE can someone issue this film as an international subtitled edition DVD?!!!
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