‘Nicholas and Alexandra’ movie review: Opulent 1971 spectacle lacks emotional core
Nicholas and Alexandra is surely one of the most sumptuous film productions ever made. Production designer John Box’s elaborate sets, Yvonne Blake’s equally elaborate costumes, Richard Rodney Bennett’s lush musical score, and frequent David Lean collaborator Freddie Young’s richly textured cinematography provide the perfect period atmosphere for this historical epic. Missing, however, is a screenplay that offers dialogue instead of speeches, and a directorial hand that brings out emotional truth instead of soapy melodrama.
Nicholas and Alexandra begins when, after several unsuccessful attempts, Tsar Nicholas II (Michael Jayston) finally becomes the father of a boy. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife, the German-born Empress Alexandra (Janet Suzman), have their happiness crushed when they discover that their infant son is a hemophiliac.
In addition to his familial turmoil, the Tsar must also deal with popular discontent over a long-running war against Japan for control of the Korean peninsula, and with social disturbances caused by a wrecked economy and a lack of democratic institutions. In the meantime, the empress soothes her pain with the assistance of the mystic Rasputin (Tom Baker, replacing original choice Peter O’Toole), who seems to have mysterious powers that keep her frail son alive.
Through the guidance of his advisors, the gentle but narrow-minded Tsar ever so grudgingly opens up the semi-feudal Russian political system. But it is too little, too late. Worsening matters, an ill-fated decision to send troops to the western border leads to a declaration of war from Germany and the beginning of World War I.
As the Russian economy collapses, social chaos ensues. Inevitably, the imperial family ends up swept into the flames of the revolution.
Old-fashioned mix of history lesson and melodrama
As a result of Franklin J. Schaffner’s old-fashioned direction, and James Goldman’s part-history lesson, part-daytime soap screenplay, most of the Nicholas and Alexandra cast act out their roles instead of living them.
Tom Baker’s highly mannered Rasputin is a case in point, and, disappointingly, so is Royal Shakespeare Company star Janet Suzman’s superficial Alexandra – who, like everyone in tsarist Russia, from peasants to foreign empresses, speaks flawless British English. Laurence Olivier, for his part, is so over the top that his climactic “the end is near” speech comes across as parody.
Aside from a few theatrical moments, the stage-trained Michael Jayston actually fares better than most of the movie-veteran cast members, conveying Nicholas’ failings as well as his strengths in a generally believable and at times quite touching manner.
But it is Irene Worth’s Queen Mother who, with her commanding presence, manages to steal every scene in which she appears. Watching Worth’s no-nonsense elder queen, one realizes that had she been the ruler of all Russias in 1917, there would have been no revolution. No one would have dared.
Phony, conventional melo redeemed by real life horror
A less conventional approach could have turned Nicholas and Alexandra into a masterful historical drama. As it stands, this mega-production by legendary producer Sam Spiegel is a watchable, if overlong, soap opera.
Yet if the scenes showing Lenin, Trotsky, and other revolutionary figures feel stomach-turningly phony, Nicholas and Alexandra is partially redeemed at the end. For even with the absence of the surprise element, the fate of the last of the Romanovs is no less horrifying.
‘Nicholas and Alexandra’ starring Vanessa Redgrave or Katharine Hepburn?
 Planet of the Apes and Patton director Franklin J. Schaffner stepped in after veteran George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, Giant) and Anthony Harvey, whose The Lion in Winter was based on James Goldman’s play, bowed out following disagreements with the irascible Sam Spiegel.
Purported contenders for the role included Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn (a regal-looking Natasha Rostova in King Vidor’s War and Peace), and, most likely as a marketing ploy, Princess of Monaco Grace Kelly.
Sam Spiegel movies
- The African Queen (1951).
Director: John Huston.
Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Katharine Hepburn. Robert Morley.
- The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).
Director: David Lean.
Cast: Alec Guinness. William Holden. Sessue Hayakawa.
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Director: David Lean.
Cast: Peter O’Toole. Omar Sharif. Alec Guinness. Anthony Quinn. Claude Rains.
Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.
Screenplay: James Goldman. Additional dialogue by Edward Bond. From Robert K. Massie’s 1967 historical novel.
Cast: Michael Jayston. Janet Suzman. Irene Worth. Laurence Olivier. Tom Baker. Harry Andrews. Michael Bryant. Maurice Denham. Jack Hawkins. Ian Holm. John McEnery. Eric Porter. Michael Redgrave. Alan Webb. Curd Jürgens. Lynne Frederick. Roderic Nobel. Timothy West. John Wood. Guy Rolfe. Vivian Pickles. Brian Cox. James Hazeldine. Stephen Greif. Roy Dotrice. Martin Potter. Alexander Knox. Julian Glover. John Shrapnel. John Forbes-Robertson. And in uncredited roles: Robin Askwith. Jeremy Brett.
Nicholas and Alexandra movie cast information via the IMDb.
Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman Nicholas and Alexandra images: Columbia Pictures.