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Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

Cover of "Nicholas and Alexandra"

Three hour movies possess something special in order to convince me to devote the time.  Nicholas and Alexandra was just such a film, as it not only appeases my love for royal monarchies, but it also indulges the girl in me who adored the story of the Romonov’s. Any young  girl of the 1990s worth her salt saw the animated Anastasia, and sure it wasn’t accurate (I actually researched after seeing the movie, and my young brain was traumatized), but it inspired a love of the despised Russian monarchy that’s never gone away.  Nicholas and Alexandra was hoped to be a Russian Lawrence of Arabia that didn’t take off, but Twilight Time has released the film on Blu-Ray, and I implore fans of epics and costumes dramas to purchase it.  A sumptuous, sprawling tale of power, privilege, and despair that transcends the few historical inaccuracies to create a wonderful recreation of the Russian monarchy.

Czar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) must deal with the rising hatred to his opulent monarchy during the Russian Revolution.  On the home front, he copes with the knowledge that his son has hemophilia, which Nicholas’ wife Alexandra (Janet Suzman) can’t understand.

As with all Twilight Time Blu-Rays, the transfer of Nicholas and Alexandra is gorgeous.  Here, it’s necessary to emphasize the glamour which the Romanov’s wrapped themselves in.  The night photography stands out the best; the shadows have varying shades and a scene at sunset is particularly exquisite.  The palaces are lush and bright, while the costumes drip with jewels.  The set design and costumes in this movie are appropriately ravishing since this won Oscars for Art Direction and Costume Design.  The lengthy run-time, and rather convoluted plot with characters that are neither American nor British should make for a hellish slog, but I adored this movie from top to bottom.  Part of that could be because I enjoy costume dramas, but another is the high quality of everything that was used to put this together.  For a British production, it’s not surprising that the actors don’t speak in Russian or fake an accent.  I doubt audiences would have spent three hours with Russian subtitles, or obviously fake accents.  If you go in expecting the German nobles to be little removed from standard English aristocrats, you should be fine.

Nicholas and Alexandra isn’t just about a monarchy deteriorating  it’s also about the family placed in the middle.  The sequences with the royal family are where the meat of the film lies.  We’re meant to sympathize with them, and see their intentions are noble.  The children, especially, are sympathetic as they have no role in policy; they’re simply born into the family.  Nicholas ends up being the hostile one, but the script writes him not devoid of emotion.  He’s simply a stubborn autocrat who fears giving any concessions to his people for fear of “giving his rights away.”  His motives are selfish and stubborn, but his council is really no better; they simply tell him to give the people a “taste” of what they want.  It’s well-known to historians that Nicholas didn’t wish to be czar, nor did he feel he was skilled in the role.  His selfish nature comes through in how comfortable he is flaunting his power.  Despite wanting to spend time with his children, he can’t help but be excited when his people come out to “stand and wave.”  His desire to prove himself, to make the people love him, while at the same time giving them nothing, is his downfall.  Michael Jayston is a solid Nicholas.  He’s not particularly impressive, especially compared to co-star Suzman, but he’s reliable.

As his better half is Janet Suzman as Alexandra.  The odds aren’t in Jayston’s favor through no fault of his own (it’s not like he could have played Alexandra…it’s only 1971), but Suzman has the juicier role.  Alexandra struggles to protect her only son, Alexis (Roderic Noble), who suffers from hemophilia.  She harbors guilt for giving him the disease, which passes from mother to child.  With that, she finds answers in the mystic Rasputin (Tom Baker).  The movie never alleged anything more than Rasputin and the czarina were friends and confidants, but the way Nicholas spends so much time wrapped up in politics helps the audience see something developing.  Suzman gives heart and conviction to the role of Alexandra.  Her speech upon discovering Alexis’ condition is touching and pleading.  It’s Academy Award worthy, which she was nominated for (she lost to Jane Fonda in Klute).  Her relationship with Nicholas is cute, loving, and compassionate.  If anything, her and Jayston work fantastically together and create a rounded relationship that isn’t seen in movies about regular people!  There are moments where the script wants us to believe Alexandra is spoiled, but we never see it.

The plot focuses most on Rasputin, the rise and fall of the monarchy, the Romonov’s exile in various locales, and Alexis’ illness.  Rasputin is a genuine character, and his story is as intriguing to see play on-screen as he was in real life.  Tom Baker (Doctor freaking Who) plays Rasputin perfectly and it’s a travesty he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar that year.  He eerily transforms himself into Rasputin, and yet there’s an attractive, magnetic quality to the character; it explains why Alexandra would be so drawn to him.  The movie doesn’t vilify or glorify Rasputin; there’s varying shades of gray written into his character.  Baker plays the role so perfectly it does become dampening to not see a full Rasputin movie with Baker at the helm.  By the time Rasputin dies (sorry if I spoiled history there), you feel bad for him.  You should, because the movie tweaks events to make the drunken goons who kill him to come off like incompetent lovers of violence.  He gets a bulk of the movie devoted to him, but surprisingly the character everyone swirls around is Alexis.  The title should include his name for how much the movie devotes to him.  The four daughters, including the infamous Anastasia, are lumped into events as a group and get very minor screen-time.  All anyone cares about is Alexis; whether talking about how he could die, or focusing on him doing things and getting hurt.  I didn’t particularly understand why everyone had to make things about him.  By the end, Nicholas is apologizing to Alexis for abdicating the throne as if Alexis is his wife!  Why are you apologizing to your son?  There’s four other children who are suffering as well, guess they aren’t important enough to include in this discussion.

Of course, you should be aware of how the tale ends.  By the last hour, the family is drained and exhausted.  A haunting scene has them laying out in the sun for their requisite moment outside as they’re continually watched by guards.  You see  that despite standing in the sun, there’s no glow to them; no life, no vitality, no reason to live if they’re going to be paraded from place to place.  This utter hopelessness makes the ending all the more emotional because it feels undeserved.  The final scene is a work of art setting up the feelings that will leave you saying, “Wow.”  The camera pulls back from the door to a wide shot showing the barren room the family has been herded into.  Their suitcases, the small amount of items that define them, lay stacked in a corner.  The family, arranged in a deflated mock family portrait, sit.  As the executioners enter and raise their guns, Alexis kisses Nicholas, and Alexandra crosses herself.  They’re shot and killed with the head of the guard walking and shooting directly at the camera.  The ending is a tad specious as you’re led to believe the family was gunned down with no warning.  It’s been reported that someone did read a warrant decreeing their execution.  Regardless, the final seconds are tangible and presented without exploitation.

The Blu-Ray includes another fantastic essay by Julie Kirgo discussing the film.  There’s also an isolated soundtrack feature (seen on Pony Soldier, as well) that I recommend because the score is pounding and lovely.  There’s also three featurettes, and a trailer.  The movie itself is worth watching, and I recommend watching it on Blu-Ray.  Nicholas and Alexandra is an elegant and all-encompassing look at the rise and fall of the royal family.  The acting, particularly from Janet Suzman and Tom Baker is spellbinding.  I can’t think of any more adjectives to describe it; just go buy it!

Ronnie Rating:



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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

18 thoughts on “Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) Leave a comment

  1. This almost seems like the flipside of Doctor Zhivago, which was about how the tensions between the Czarists and the Communists affected the common people. You never really know what’s going on with the higher ups, but you see how the going ons ripple down to the average Joe.

    • The comparisons to Doctor Zhivago are appropriate as this was also made in response to the success of that movie, I believe. I feel bad I haven’t seen Doctor Zhivago yet lol.

      • What was interesting about Doctor Zhivago was how it made no attempt to paint either the Czarists or the Communists in a positive light. Early on in the movie, you see the Czar’s soldiers mercilessly butcher peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Moscow. At the same time, you see Strelnikov riding his train so he can kill suspected traitors to the Communist cause. I guess something like Nicholas and Alexandra would be appropriate to see in conjunction to see a more human depiction of the Russian monarchy.

  2. I really love this movie. I’m from a Russian-American family, so I’ve always been interested in Russian history. My great-uncle actually was a Bundist, who helped spread word about overthrowing Nicholas II. I agree with you that Tom Baker should have gotten at LEAST a nomination for Rasputin, he was incredible. One of the moments from the movie that stick out for me is at the very end when they’re about to be shot…and two of the girls grab each other in fear. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like.

    Thanks for the review! And thanks for reminding me that I owe a letter to my cousins in Russia 🙂

    • You just have all the awesome stories lol. Baker’s performance has to be one of those listed in an article about the Oscars missing out! I forgot to mention the girls clutching each other at the end, it’s a moment that resonates because the children were not at all responsible for what happened to them. They’re the most innocent victims of the entire movie. Haha, if you write those cousins let me know! Congrats on Backlots turning 2 by the way!

  3. So excited to see a post about this movie…I’m honestly a huge nerd fan for it, yet haven’t seen it in years. The cinematography (and costumes!!) are phenomenal. That final scene is so haunting; if I remember any scene from that movie, it’s the end. Completely terrifying and realistic.

    • Haha, we all have our nerdy movie loves (isn’t that why we get into film reviewing?). For me, I’m a sucker for Tudor movies, but this was fantastic because of the sad ending. You know the final scene is coming, and I think what I respected is that we actually see they’re going to die. Too often movies where we know the ending think they’re being unique by not showing it. Marie Antionette comes to mind.

  4. I haven’t seen this film in years, but I remember being absolutely bowled over by it, not just by the sumptuous production design, but by the richness of the characters as well. They are definitely not perfect people, filled with all the usual human foibles, but you empathize with them even as the old monarchical system that has held them captive collapses all around them. The ending of course is particularly affecting.

    I also remember being impressed by Rasputin, but had completely forgotten that Tom Baker played the old rascal. Think I might just have to get my hands on this Blu-ray edition. I’ve also been wanting to get my hands on a copy of Alan Rickman’s 1996 TV movie Rasputin, but that one is tough to find.

    • Exactly, I think it would have been too easy to say “The Russian Revolution happened for a reason” and present the Romanovs as terrible people for American audiences. It’s not everyday historical accuracy is valued in Hollywood. I had no clue Rickman played Rasputin!? The best actors seem to play that character. If you find a copy, please let me know!

    • It was surprising to me. That three-hour runtime made me wary, but it turned out to be fantastic. I love posting photos from movies made in Cinemascope. They’re grander than other stills it seems.

  5. For Kristen – Hi – I saw the movie ‘Nicholas & Alexandra’ when it came
    out in theatres in 1971 – there were several scenes that added to the
    movie that were cut out in the regular DVD release – notably, the scene
    right before Rasputin is seen lounging on the sofa – believe it or not,
    there was a brief scene of a room with several people lounging –
    one was a fat Richard Simmons – also, a scene with Rasputin and
    the boy Alexis, and one scene of Rasputin being wrapped in chains
    and thrown into water to drown. I guess these were taken out of
    the general DVD release – can you tell me if they are in the Blu-ray edition?
    Where can I go to see movies unedited as they were presented
    in their first release in movie theaters? Thank you!

  6. Tom Baker is still the best incarnation of Doctor Who to this very day. And he’s very good in this movie and “Golden Voyage of Sinbad.”

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