It is perhaps because of the legend of the alleged surviving daughter, Anastasia (as well as a spooky priest named Rasputin), that the historical saga of Nicholas and Alexandra is remembered today, but unfortunately, the story of the end of the Russian royal line is cemented only in history, not in culture. This film shows the last years of their reign, the strong love that kept them going in spite of the many trials and tribulations in their marriage that brought a nation to its knees, and their determination to remain strong as they lived in exile. It is a story of family. It is a story of a poverty stricken country where millions of undocumented children died of starvation, leading to a revolution, and then finally, it is the story of a new power rise that is a story all in its own, touched on here by the brief presence of Vladimir Lenin, a Bolshevik leader who founded the Russian Communist party. As played by Michael Jayston and the Academy Award nominated Janet Suzman, it is obvious from the start that Nicholas and Alexandra are truly in love, but the weak-willed Nicholas doesn't really have what it takes to really be a great leader, and the single minded Alexandra has only one agenda: to cure her son Alexi from hemophilia.
It was very wise of the casting directors to choose the rather unknown Suzman in the role of Alexandra over a more popular British actress, with both Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson very busy at the time. She is obviously a loving wife and mother, but as history has pointed out, she never was able to connect with her husband's people. Looking glorious in the lavish gowns, furs and hats (one of which makes an appearance in Alexandra's ghostly state in the Broadway musical version of the animated musical film "Anastasia"), Suzman is a conflict of emotions, often cool with her husband and daughters, and one sighted as she becomes manipulated by the sinister Rasputin (an excellent, multi-dimensional performance by Tom Baker) who soon has the nation in an uproar. Assassinations of other various Russian political figures and the Arch-Duke and Duchess of Austria, show the onslaught of World War I, and the very bitter war between Russia and Germany becomes the catalyst of Nicholas's decision to abdicate, setting into motion his own death sentence.
The last hour of this film that shows the royal family in captivity is particularly sad because of the audience's knowledge of where this will lead them to in the final scene. There are moments when it seems that they might make it out, but when even Nicholas's own cousin (King George V of England) must deny him a place of exile, they all seem to know that their destiny is set. The actor playing the crippled guard in their final home might be creepy looking from the first long shot of his appearance, but from my childhood memory, it was the kindness he showed them that stood out which leads to the shocking developments of their final moments. There are great moments of joy where the royal daughters have a snowy Siberian dance with the soldiers guarding them, and yet the sad fate, particularly of the ailing Alexi who shows much more strength in many ways than his own father. Also particularly memorable is the way in which Rasputin is dealt with and the two strong scenes of Irene Worth as Nicholas's mother, a character who would later play an important part in the legend of the allegedly fake Anna Anderson who claimed to be Anastasia.
This is a beautiful film which is best seen on a large movie screen or digital TV in its original widescreen format. The costumes, sets, photography, music and editing are all spectacular, and as directed by Franklin J. Schaffner (fresh off his triumph of "Patton"), it is rarely dull in its over three hour length. Certainly, even with the long running time, some of the facts or details seem to be missing, and a few facts have been proven to be altered, particularly the assassination scene which history has shown to be much more brutal than what is presented here. There are so many well known actors in small roles that it is very difficult to really review their participations in it, but such legendary actors as Laurence Olivier, Harry Andrews and Jack Hawkins do deserve at least a brief mention. Nicholas and Alexandra marked the end of an era in the history of any monarchy where their absolute power meant much suffering for the poor and much frivolity for the rich. They might not have the fame of the guillotined Louix XVI and Marie Antoinette of France, but theirs is a story which after seeing this film you will not soon forget.
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