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The Russian revolution, a dead Tsar’s daughter, and a con man’s schemes. Sound like a history lesson gone amuck? In Hollywood, it’s the perfect recipe for an Oscar-winning film. Like all true classics, the 1956 Anastasia holds up well, with plenty to offer twenty-first century audiences. With a strong story, mystery, and a touch of romance, entertainment is a given. The cinematography is quietly brilliant, functioning as the perfect vehicle for several masterful acting performances.
This film also doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life, exploring the devastating effects of violence, war, and greed. Unlike many recent movies that attempt to tackle such issues, Anastasia leaves viewers moved and enlightened, yet not in any way contaminated by having watched the film. Instead, Anastasia uses the grim aspects of the story to cogently illustrate the transforming power of love.
In the years following the Russian revolution, rumors began to surface concerning the usurped Tsar’s family. The Romanovs were all supposed to have been executed, but a story emerges that one of the Romanov children may have survived the ordeal. Several of the Romanov daughters are suggested, with the most popular pick being the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II.
Ten years after the revolution, the rumors persist, centered on the enticing inheritance that the heiress Anastasia would receive if she were to resurface. With the money as incentive, General Sergei Bounine, formerly a prominent political figure in Russia, joins with two fellow expatriates to find a “reasonable facsimile” for Anastasia. Sergei emphatically believes that Anastasia is dead, but he is a man who understands how to manipulate people and knows what he wants, which, in this case, is personal triumph and wealth.
After discarding the notion of hiring actresses to appease the creditors he convinced to support the Anastasia search, Sergei finds a destitute woman who suffers from amnesia. Sergei would have no interest in the asylum escapee if not for the fact that she has some “surprising features” (scars, correct body type, etc.) on which he can capitalize. After saving this woman known as Anna Koreff from attempted suicide, Sergei convinces her to submit to his training to become Anastasia.
The supposed imposter’s motivations for masquerading as Anastasia are the polar opposite of Sergei’s. This lonely woman desperately wants to know who she really is and to be loved. As deviously competent as Sergei is, he and the rest of the disbelieving Russians are unprepared for the unsettling evidence that Anna may be the real Anastasia. Still more unexpected is the growing realization that her true identity may not matter at all.
As a supremely character-driven film, Anastasia could be made or destroyed by the actors. The Academy Award that Ingrid Bergman received for her role as Anna/Anastasia is well-deserved and, consistent with the Academy’s voting record, marks the most conspicuous player of the film. Yul Brynner, however, turns in an even better performance as the intimidating General Bounine.
Brynner fully realizes the complex nuances of his character, making viewers crave the moments when they can glimpse the growing tenderness beneath the pride and fierce strength that initially define Sergei. Together, Bergman and Brynner have a chemistry that makes the subtle hints of romance pop off the screen. Helen Hayes as Anastasia’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress, also gives one of the most layered and emotionally compelling film performances of her highly-acclaimed career.
Director Anatole Litvak obviously knew how to handle top-notch actors, and even utilized a style of cinematography that is tailored to facilitate great acting. The cinematography, rather than utilitarian as it may first appear, favors long, single takes—a stark contrast to the frequent cuts of most modern films.
The result is the continuity of a theater performance, blended with the intimacy and reality of film. The actors thus get more room to work uninterrupted, and the benefits are seen in the end product. When watching a movie like this, keeping an eye on the stars and supporting actors when they are not the focal point of the scene is an education in generous ensemble acting of the highest caliber.
In addition, the acting and filmmaking are enabled by the foundation of an intriguing, well-formed story. All of the primary characters are fully developed and compelling to watch during the changes they undergo throughout the film. Pleasantly, the story’s strengths are not undone by any significant negative content. Anastasia is living proof that one can have relevant, gripping drama without offensive language and memorable romance without sexual content.
While there aren’t any harmful risks for young viewers, the story is heavy and thought-provoking with emotionally frightening moments that might bother some kids and mature themes that might bore others. Parents who want to introduce their young children to the film should be aware of the few minor issues of prevalent smoking (a reflection of the production’s era and the time period of the story) and a scene in which Anna drinks too much wine at dinner and becomes intoxicated (making her harmlessly giggly and silly). At a restaurant, a modestly dressed gypsy performer is shown, very briefly, doing an apparently ethnic dance that could be seen as sensual.
Few and fleeting as these moments are, they need not be of concern for appropriately aged viewers, particularly in light of Anastasia’s uplifting message. One would think that the homeless, suicidal woman who is picked up from the bottom and brought to the top would experience the most remarkable transformation in this story. But in the end, Anastasia shows that love has the power to change, heal, and restore the hardest of hearts and the saddest of lives—even for those who don’t think they need it.
Check out these similar titles:
The King and I (Twentieth Century Fox, 1956)
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (Twentieth Century Fox, 1958)
The Young Victoria (GK Films, 2009)