By Richard Winters
My Rating: 9 out of 10
4-Word Review: The last Russian Tsar.
This film chronicles the life of Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) of Russia and his marriage to Alexandria (Janet Suzman). Based on the novel by Robert K. Massie it examines the height of his power and his apathy to the poverty of his people and his reluctance to listen to their needs, or consider a more democratic form of government. It also looks at his personal life including the birth of his son Alexei (Roderic Noble) who is diagnosed with hemophilia and his wife’s over-reliance on Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker) a man pretending to have divine connections who ultimately uses his influence on Alexandra to take control over her political affairs when her husband is away. The film also portrays Russia’s involvement during WWI as well as the Tsar’s downfall and eventual exile in Siberia with his family.
The film is basically split up into three parts with the first hour looking at Nicholas’ family life while intercutting with scenes showing the discontent of the Russia people and the efforts of Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant) to create a revolutionary form of government. The second hour examines Russia’s war involvement and the many warnings that Nicholas is given not to get involved in it, but foolishly decides to anyways, which ultimately creates massive upheaval. The third hour looks at his abdication of power and the family’s exile and virtual imprisonment at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg where they nervously await their fate.
Initially I thought the third hour would be the weakest as we all know they get shot and killed execution style, but to my surprise it is actually the strongest part of the film. To an extent tearing the characters away from their plush surroundings and forcing them to exist in bleak, squalor-like conditions actually humanizes them and allows the viewer to empathize with them particularly the four daughters who had nothing to do with their father’s harsh policies and just wanted a chance to grow up and live a normal life. The scene where the family is herded into the basement of the home in the early morning hours and forced to sit silently while awaiting their executioners is quite possibly one of the most intense moments ever captured on film.
The performances are uniformly strong particularly Suzman’s as well as Baker as the evil Rasputin who’s drawn out death scene may be one of the longest in movie history. Laurence Olivier in a small, but pivotal bit as the Prime Minister gets two commanding moments including his speech after the Bloody Sunday massacre and later his strong misgivings about the country’s war involvement.
The film is full of brilliant cinematography, direction, costumes and set pieces and is certainly something that must be watched on the big screen to be fully appreciated. I enjoyed the lavish interiors of the Winter Palace especially their walks down the elegant hallways that are lined with Royal guards, but found it equally interesting when Nicholas returns there after the war and forced to walk down these same hallways, which are now darkened and rundown. The many long distance shots of the flat and majestic landscape is also impressive particularly a view of a rolling sunflower field.
Although this film has never attained the well-known classic status of Doctor Zhivago, and in fact this was producer Sam Spiegal’s answer to that film when he was blocked from working on it, I still found it to be every bit as compelling and well directed.
My Rating: 9 out of 10
Released: December 13, 1971
Runtime: 3Hours 8Minutes
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video