In the summer of 1918, Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family were executed by the Bolsheviks. However, in the years that followed, rumors began to circulate that the tsar's daughter Anastasia – his youngest child – had actually survived and was now living elsewhere under a pseudonym. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the rumors continued to grow, quickly turning into something resembling a series of sentimental folktales. The “what if Anastasia actually survived?” premise has been used for many books and films, with most imagining some form of bright, sunny future for the young woman. This development is understandable: when you read about the horrific manner in which Anastasia and her sisters actually died, it's hard not to want to believe that someone was shown a little mercy.
The most prominent film made on the subject is Anatole Litvak's 1956 feature Anastasia, a grand widescreen epic that transforms the tale into a lavish romantic drama. The tale begins in 1928, a full decade after the now-legendary execution took place. The duplicitous General Bounine (Yul Brynner, The King and I) has heard the rumors that Tsar Nicholas left a vast fortune in an English bank, but that no one is able to claim the money because none of the Tsar's family members are still alive. He's heard all the rumors about the possibility of Anastasia's survival, and decides to take advantage of those rumors by seeking out a look-alike, grooming her to behave like a royal princess and then attempting to sell the story to the people who once knew Anastasia. A difficult task, yes, but the general is a resourceful man.
After many months of searching, the general finally finds the woman he's looking for: Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca), a homeless refugee who was recently released from a mental institution and who suffers from amnesia. It'll take a lot of work to pass her off as royalty, but the fact that she's basically a blank slate and the fact that she's a dead ringer for Anastasia will help. Ah, but there's just one catch: as time passes, we begin to realize that Anna may actually be the real Anastasia... but due to her memory loss, she still has to learn to “act” the part.
The film initially tries to be even-handed about whether or not this woman really is the long-lost princess, but the filmmakers tip their hand early: they're clearly as eager as the audience is to confirm that this woman actually is the real deal. It's a thoroughly ridiculous premise, but the film manages to sell it by playing it as passionate melodrama with just a dash of screwball comedy. Yes, you roll your eyes at some of the nonsensical contrivances the film serves up, but the actors play the material with such charming sincerity.
Bergman can be an extraordinarily subtle, nuanced actress, but she seems well aware of the fact that Anastasia is a three-hanky picture. Her performance is big and passionate, as she flings herself wholeheartedly into fits of hysteria, tearful confessions, drunken comic interludes and earnest pleas. It works: a smaller performance might have been drowned out by the material. The Academy agreed, granting Bergman a Best Actress Oscar for her work. On the flip side, Brynner delivers the sort of performance that he almost always delivers: precise, authoritative and masculine. He barks his orders at Anna/Anastasia in his patented stern way, stares at her intently as she makes her emotional replies and occasionally – just occasionally, mind you – permits his voice to slip into a softer register to indicate affection.
Bergman and Brynner are good together (and there's a real tenderness to their inevitable moments of romantic recognition), but the film's best scene is supplied by the great Helen Hayes (The Glass Menagerie), who plays the steely Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovona. The empress' opinion on the authenticity of Anastasia's story is the one that matters most, and will mean the difference between a life of fortune and a life of poverty for our heroine. Hayes' face-to-face chat with Bergman is an extraordinary display of acting talent, as the two manage to cover nearly the entire range of human emotion in the span of just a few minutes. It's terrific stuff.
The film never manages to top that tremendous conversation, but it stays involving all the way to the finish line by ensuring that no fat is permitted to remain. Scenes have a tendency to end just a few beats before you expect them to, which gives the whole thing a feeling of consistent forward momentum. Note the scene in which the general introduces Anastasia at a party: right after his speech, we expect to see her make her entrance... but instead, we jump forward a couple of hours, after she's been mingling with the crowd for a while. The film also gets a considerable boost from Alfred Newman's score, anchored by a ravishing main theme that screams “romance!” long before Brynner and Bergman start making eyes at each other. This is a movie that tells you exactly what you're going to get and then gives it to you. Nothing wrong with that.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 105 minutes
Release Year: 1956