The story of Anastasia, the supposed last living member of the Russian royal family, is famous the world over. The hope that one last symbol of pre-Communist Russia exists/existed, is one that has lived on in the collective imagination for a long time.
Twentieth Century Fox made the film twice, once in 1956 and again in 1997. They both follow largely the same story: the claim to the Romanov title holds great possibilities, but there have been many imposters to the name of Anastasia, and so the world has grown weary of actresses playing the part. The genuine Anastasia must be found, but the woman who comes forward, seemingly genuine, is doubted by all those around her.
The 1956 version, the one which I will be writing about today, stars Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner and Helen Hayes, amongst other great character actors such as Akim Tamiroff and Martita Hunt. But it is Ingrid and Brynner who shine particular as Anna “Anastasia” Koreff and Sergei. Anna is a young woman who is unsure of her origins, she has physical and mental scars whose origins are largely unknown. She may have received her head wounds in a train accident, or she may have received them from gunshot wounds. At the beginning of the film she is unsure, but she has claimed in the past to have the memories of Anastasia. As the film goes on, she begins to develop real memories of events that could not have been “taught” to her by Sergei or anyone else.
Sergei is an ex- general of the Tsarist army. He seems cold and calculating, having escaped during the revolution and started a Russian restaurant in Paris, which is frequented by wealthy Russian aristocrats and others who want to see remnants of the “old” Russia. He has tried to convince others of various women being Anastasia, and is therefore entirely unmoved by Anna’s claims that she may be the genuine article. He schools her in all the social mores that she should know, tells her about various events and places that Anastasia would recall, and sets about trying to get to the Grand Duchess, Anastasia’s grandmother, so that he can convince everyone that Anna is Anastasia. He is a largely unlikable character, who is often cruel to our heroine, but who comes to realise that she is who she says she is, and begins to love for the first time in his life.
Anatole Litvak’s direction is utterly masterful. From scenes in small, familiar rooms where Anna and Sergei verbally duel, usually with him the grudging winner; to the great spectacle at the end, where Anna will be “crowned” the lost princess of Russia, his is an artistry that paints a melancholic, but most importantly, authentic picture of what it means to doubt ones identity and to be alone in the world. It is through his direction that Ingrid Bergman gives ones of the best, and most natural performances of her career. This, in my opinion, is Litvak’s hallmark. Like Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit and Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, it is Ingrid who is the most important part of the film. Litvak makes sure that it doesn’t become Brynner’s movie, which it easily could have. Like George Cukor, for Litvak it is about his leading lady, and how she anchors and carries the film.
One of my favourite scenes, is when Anna is presented to the Russian aristocracy now residing like splendid ghosts in Paris, and Sergei and his two associates, need Anna to convince Chamberlain, one of the Tsar’s most trusted officials, that she is Anastasia. At first the old man is utterly unimpressed, but as he is turning away, after saying that Anna lacks the carriage of a princess, she rebukes Boris (Akim Tamiroff) for smoking without her permission. Litvak stops the scene as Chamberlain stops dead in his tracks, and even though you know this isn’t enough to convince everyone of her authenticity, you feel a great sense of satisfaction in that moment.
Alfred Newman composes another beautiful score. Flowing and gentle, but also haunting, it supports the film to perfection. There is a waltz number that becomes the music that connects Sergei and Anna. Without words, it conveys all the longing that both of them feel for a time that one of them cannot entirely recall and another who recalls everything far too clearly. It’s a score that is unobtrusive. Although there are moments of swelling, they do not overpower scenes or endeavour to make the movie grander than it ought to be. Despite the film focusing on a long passage of time, as the past and the present intersects and overlap in Anna’s story, it always feels like an intimate film. One that gives you access to the innermost feelings of its characters, and which does much to build character through dialogue and not only action.
Helen Hayes is superb as the grandmother. Although she is only introduced in the second half of the film, she does much to make her presence as the imposing Grand Duchess known. This is no mean feat, as most of the cast members tower over her slight frame. But she is every bit the regal, cynical but also very authentic woman who has survived so much. I always feel that Helen Hayes really shone in her later roles, and Anastasia is good evidence of this. While the film, as I stated earlier, is clearly Ingrid’s, Helen supports her younger female costar brilliantly. The scene in which Anna and her grandmother finally come together, with the latter acknowledging that she has finally found her grandchild after so many imposters; is probably the best part of the film, because it shows two of the best actresses of the Golden Age giving incredible depth of feeling to two complex characters.
Overall, Anastasia is a film that deserves to be better known. Often dismissed due to Ingrid and Brynner’s other works, it is a film that is rare in its focus on a female character who is suffering from mental health problems in an era where women were either sex kittens or the perfect picture of pious womanhood. The script allows for a layered performance by Ingrid, and it is unsurprising that she was won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her portrayal. I highly recommend watching this film if you love the animated version, so that you can see where much of the inspiration came from. While the 1997 version is obviously far more fantastical with its edition of evil Rasputin, the original still has much of that magic that motion pictures of the Golden Era were so well known for crafting.
This is my incredibly late entry to The Wonderful World of Cinema’s wonderful blogathon dedicated to this lovely actress. Visit their blog for more entries about this legend of the silver screen.