Saturday, June 30, 2012

1971 - Nicholas and Alexandra

After several months of planning, my talented wife Kat and I have finally launched our theatre company. Australian Made Entertainment will concentrate on producing Australian plays in New York City (and, considering my love of film, we will inevitably branch into movie-making as well). We have a theatre booked for our first show later this year, so stay tuned for more details. This blog will undoubtedly feature more announcements on behalf of the company but, in the meantime, visit our website, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Kicking off our look at the Oscar nominees for the Best Picture of 1971 is...

Nicholas and Alexandra
Franklin J. Schaffner
James Goldman
(based on the book by Robert K. Massie)
Michael Jayston, Janet Suzman, Harry Andrews, Tom Baker, Michael Bryant, Maurice Denham, Jack Hawkins, Ian Holm, Curd Jürgens, John McEnery, Roderic Noble, Eric Porter, Michael Redgrave, Alan Webb, Irene Worth, Laurence Olivier
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design

Presenting the final years of the Russian monarchy, the story of Nicholas (Jayston), the Tsar of Russia, and his wife Alexandra (Suzman) begins with the birth of their only son, Alexei (played as an older child by Noble), who is quickly diagnosed with haemophilia. Nicholas is eager for his son to take the reins of the monarchy upon his death, but two main issues stand in his way. First, Alexei's condition will probably see him die before his father, a possibility made more likely as Alexei's daredevil behaviour turns somewhat suicidal. Second, Russia's volatile political situation means there may not be a monarchy for Alexei to take over anyway. Nicholas' stubbornness leads him to ignore his advisors' consistent warnings of an uprising, and he chooses instead to believe that his subjects want and need a traditional monarch to keep them satisfied.

As its two design Oscars attest, Nicholas and Alexandra is visually splendid, following in the footsteps of the many sweeping epics of the 1960s. And as with all good epics, its extravagance is carefully balanced with introspection. In fact, at its heart, this is a personal portrayal of a family man struggling to hold on to his dying dynasty.

The picture's tone is unmistakably British. Everything is presented with such weight and sombre importance, leading to a highly effective final scene that pushes the boundary of how many times you can cut between people's faces and still call it suspense. It turns out the answer is quite a few. And it's those stoic British faces that make the film so compelling. Almost everyone's performance, even down to the young Roderic Noble, contains heavy emotion, but it's all behind steely eyes. It's as if they were specifically directed to keep any movement of facial muscles to a bare minimum.

Not to mention the power of the British accent. Instead of the expected Russian accent, all of the Russian characters speak with a perfect British cadence. And, to be honest, if you accept that they're speaking English, it's not such a big leap to accept their accent. In any case, the suspension of disbelief required is well worth the effect.

As mentioned, the cast consists of a great number of actors who perform their roles with piercing gravity. Indeed, there is a veritable cornucopia of well-known British thespians appearing in smaller roles, including Michael Redgrave, Irene Worth, Jack Hawkins, Eric Porter and the great Laurence Olivier. Classic Doctor Who fans will get a kick out of seeing Tom Baker (pictured) in his film debut as Rasputin. You may not recognise his face behind that fluffy beard, but his commanding voice is a giveaway. A young Brian Cox also makes his film debut as Leon Trotsky. Ian Holm, in an early screen role, competes for the most stoic performance of the film. He is trumped, however, by the film's lead, Michael Jayston, who remains the king of stoicism. Jayston carries the film brilliantly, delivering an incredibly moving outburst of shame in one pivotal scene. At his side for most of the story is Janet Suzman as Alexandra, who likewise offers an outstanding performance, achieving the film's only acting nomination.

1 comment:

  1. Little did I know that lurking within this stage, film and improve actor, quizmaster and Oscar blogster was “Louie B. Foster” - producer. I was also unaware of Kathleen’s impressive credentials. Ann and I wish you both the greatest success in your new endeavor. My wife is the Facebook person, so we hooked up to Australian Made Entertainment through her Facebook account.

    I hadn’t seen Nicholas and Alexander before and was aware of its back in the pack status as an Oscar contender in 1971, but went into it hopefully with an open mind. I had just finished reading book one of British author Ken Follett’s Twentieth Century Chronicles, “Fall of Giants” which spent a good portion of its 1000 pages on this period of Russian history. So, I was primed for a cinematic look at the last of the Czars. By concentrating on the personal trials and tribulations of the royal family, it certainly made the outcome more immediate, poignant and tragic, however it was at the expense of perhaps the more interesting side of the Bolshevik Revolution. It didn’t help that this family was frankly on the dull side. Czar Nicholas sacrificed wisdom and common sense for stubbornness and pride. Alexandra wasn’t much better. Their royal lineage assured that they would certainly rise to and above their level of incompetence – an interesting example of The Peter Principle, or perhaps more apropos, The Petersburg Principle.

    Both Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman were accomplished members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and perhaps best suited for the stage. I didn’t find their performances especially cinematic – his especially, competent as they were. I was a bit surprised that young Roderic Noble as Alexis didn’t have more of a career. I thought he did quite well for someone without any formal acting training. I noted that IMDB reported that he decided to give up acting after appearing as Michael Kelly in The Main Chance the following year. Surely, it couldn’t have been his character’s name, such a fine one that it is. :)

    That was and interesting point you made about the British accent. Whether it be Russian, German, Roman etc., I seem to accept them in these non- British parts.