Sadly, the Judge Clark Douglas Party never really gained much public support.
The fall of Russia's last dynasty.
"Revolution! Revolution now! Land! Peace! All power to the soviets!"
Facts of the Case
It is a time of great turmoil in Russia. Tsar Nicholas Romanov the II (Michael Jayston, Zulu Dawn) is receiving increasing amounts of criticism for his unwillingness to back out of futile military conflicts and for his refusal to listen to those who claim the people want a representative government. Meanwhile, young revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant, Hamlet), Leon Trotsky (Brian Cox, Deadwood) and Joseph Stalin (James Hazeldine, The Ruling Class) are leading socialist political movements which are gaining ground at a rapid rate.
Nicholas' wife Alexandra (Janet Suzman, A Dry White Season) gives birth to a son named Alexei, who is subsequently diagnosed with hemophilia. Desperate to do anything to keep her son healthy, Alexandra soon finds herself falling under the spell of the charismatic monk Rasputin (Tom Baker, Doctor Who). Alexandra's decision to regard Rasputin as an advisor proves disastrous, as the mad monk leads her to makes a series of exceptionally poor choices. It's only a matter of time before the Romanovs lose control of the country, but the odds are increasingly high that the esteemed royal family might lose much more.
In 1971, Franklin J. Schaffner was one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. He had just won an Academy Award for Best Director for his 1970 biopic Patton (which also took home six additional Oscars, including Best Picture), so it's no surprise that he immediately jumped into another lavish, lengthy historical drama. Judging by the history books, Nicholas and Alexandra was another success for Schaffner: it was a Best Picture nominee and managed to win a couple of technical awards. However, time is the ultimate judge of quality, and there's definitely a reason that Patton remains a highly-respected classic while Nicholas and Alexandra is all but forgotten.
There have certainly been worse Best Picture nominees over the years, but I've seen few as thoroughly dull as Nicholas and Alexandra. Historical epics have fallen out of favor in recent decades, and films like this one are the reason why. It's strong in all of the areas that movies like this are supposed to be strong: it boasts grand costume design, lavish sets, a lush musical score by Richard Rodney Bennett (I'm not sure why Schaffner's usual collaborator Jerry Goldsmith didn't handle scoring duties, but Bennett certainly does a fine job) and meticulous recreations of historical scenarios. Unfortunately, it also suffers from the sort of stuffy lifelessness that the genre is prone to slip into now and then. How did the man who gave us the dynamic, inventive Patton (not to mention Planet of the Apes) turn such a fascinating time in history into such a turgid viewing experience?
For starters, Nicholas and Alexandra's biggest problem might be that it primarily focuses on Nicholas and Alexandra. Yes, they may have played pivotal roles in history, but it also seems that they were exceptionally dull people. It's a well-documented fact that Nicholas II was not a particularly bright man, and he's played by Jayston as a wide-eyed dullard who never has a unique or thoughtful response to any given situation. Jayston was a little-known but well-regarded actor at the time the film was released, but he never seems to figure out what on earth to do with this man. Nicholas is a man who's going through the motions at a time when Russia desperately needed engaged, innovative leadership. Perhaps from the right angle (a satirical one, maybe?) such a figure might have been more interesting, but as presented in Schaffner's take on the story, the man grows tiresome very quickly. Suzman's earthy take on Alexandra is a bit more compelling, but the screenplay doesn't give her much to chew on and the film more or less forgets about her by the third act.
The most intriguing characters of the story are hanging around the edges; playing supporting roles and making cameo appearances as they wait to take center stage in their own eventual biopic. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky…these are characters who can fuel three-hour movies. For my money, Tom Baker's crazed take on Rasputin is the most entertaining thing the film has to offer, though it must be admitted that the character seems to have been imported from a Ken Russell film. Rasputin's extended final scene (a drug-fueled orgy of sorts that turns sadistically violent) features strong direction from Schaffner, but the scene feels at odds with the rest of this stately, sluggish affair.
The screenplay makes another mistake these movies often make: it regards the historical figures it features as historical figures rather than as characters. As such, there's a great tendency for characters to enter, state their name, their purpose and their role in this complicated saga. Characters tend to refer to each other by name on a suspiciously frequent basis, in order to make sure that we're keeping up with who's who. It's also the sort of movie in which characters are constantly telling each other things that everyone involved already knows. These things go a long way towards preventing us from feeling truly immersed in the era the film works so hard to recreate. The whole thing builds to a violent, startling climax that feels like an attempt to mimic the parting-shot power of Bonnie and Clyde or Easy Rider. Unfortunately, it never comes close to reaching the potency of those conclusions, feeling more like cheap sensationalism than a strong dramatic finish. Yes, the scene is historically accurate, but the film does a poor job of building to it.
Nicholas and Alexandra (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that nicely accentuates the film's exceptional production design. Colors are vibrant and have a lot of pop and detail is solid throughout. There are some prominent moments of softness and black crush can be an issue on occasion, but it's generally a respectable transfer. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is clean and clear throughout, working to accentuate Bennett's fine score in particular. While it's a little disappointing that the disc doesn't offer a surround mix, this track is stellar. As is generally the case with Twilight Time releases, supplements are pretty minimal. You get three vintage featurettes ("Changing Faces," "Royal Daughters" and "The Royal Touch"), which run 6-8 minutes each, an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet featuring some behind-the-scenes info on the film.
Nicholas and Alexandra is a respectable film in a number of ways. It tries to shed light on a historical era that hasn't been examined often enough in cinema, and it's obvious that a great deal of effort has been putting into getting a number of details right (despite an average amount of historical revisionism popping up now and then). However, it must be admitted that the film's virtues do little to change the fact that it's also pretty dull. This Blu-ray release has been limited to 3,000 copies, so grab yours quickly if you're a fan of this lesser Schaffner effort.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
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