AFED #53: Anastasia (US, 1957); Dir. Anatole Litvak

In Hollywood the truth is always inconvenient. Facts become mutable, actual persons are delineated into caricatures and around it all is erected the scaffolding of a narrative arc, implying subtexts and relationships which never existed.

Take Anastasia; inspired by the case of Anna Anderson, the mentally ill Polish woman who claimed to be Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II that allegedly escaped death when Bolsheviks murdered the rest of the Russian royal family in 1918. Although the veracity of Anderson's story couldn't be completely dismissed until 2008, when Anastasia's remains were finally discovered, even in 1957 it had unravelled to the point of becoming laughable.

But not according to the account given here, in which the amnesiac Anderson (Ingrid Bergman) is discovered by General Bounine (Yul Brynner), a former white Russian officer who has been seeking out a suitable Anastasia in order to get a slice of the £10m deposited by the Romanovs in a London bank account.

To add to the enigma it seems Anderson possesses not only a resemblance but also uncanny knowledge of life in the Russian court. With Bounine's careful tutoring she soon beguiles the exiled Russian aristocrats in Paris, before they head to Denmark to meet Anastasia's closest surviving relative, her grandmother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Helen Hayes). After initial cynicism the Empress finally meets and accepts her only for Anderson/Anastasia to give up her new found glory to be with Bounine.

None of which ever happened. The character of Bounine was inspired by Gleb Botkin, the son of the Czar's former physician who had known Anastasia and championed Anderson's cause, although there doesn't appear to have been any love affair between them. There were in fact numerous imposters who claimed to be Anastasia or other dead members of the Romanov clan, one point that the film does make clear.

But enough of all this, you say. Isn't the job of the cinema to romance us with stories that seduce our imagination? Who cares how accurate it is?

Just as this is a tale played against a backdrop of regal splendor, so too the lavish art direction and CinemaScope camerawork belong to the declining grandeur of the old Hollywood. To modern sensibilities it's perhaps too opulent and superficial for its own good, where human drama is deficient and the allusions to Russian culture (references are thrown in to Stanislavsky and Chekhov for no good reason) could cause cringing.

Yet for Ingrid Bergman, in her first Hollywood role for seven years after scandalously absconding with Roberto Rossellini, it represented a popular and critical rehabilitation. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal, but although it's a capable and occasionally touching performance of a troubled woman, sentiment must have played a bigger part. Yul Brynner struts magnetically as only he could, but the love we're supposed to infer has been simmering between their characters is implied too casually.

The irony is that subsequent adaptations of the story appear to have taken this, not historical fact, as their principal model. While here there remains ambiguity as to whether Anderson is Anastasia, by the time of an animated version in 1997 she had unequivocally become the Romanov princess. Bizarre that an episode less than a century old can be transformed into a fairytale.


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