It’s worrisome that only three moments come to mind as truly affecting in Nicholas and Alexandra.
The first sees the Tsar weepy and crumpled on his knees, bemoaning his failures as a man following his abdication, and begging his wife for forgiveness.
The second sees Nicholas be berated by one of his guards on a train. It’s the first time anyone tells him so bluntly how many people have died because of his indecision. It’s brutal and laconic, and Nicholas can only look on vacantly.
The third moment is the final moment of the film. It’s a magnificent scene. The family wait in a cellar, the scene is hushed and carries a potent sense of helplessness as they anticipate something, what exactly they’re not sure. Or maybe they are.
The common thread of these moments is how simple they are. There’s nothing grand about them, rather they’re driven by the vulnerability of their characters. They’re quieter moments, stripped back and honest.
The problem with Franklin J. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra is that it tries to make something epic out of what is decidedly humble subject matter.
Schaffner and screenwriter James Goldman go to great lengths to bring the Russian Tsar (Michael Jayston) down to eye level. They stress the man’s weaknesses; they explore him as a man with a family rather than a man with an empire. He’s fragile and delicate. There’s an admirable sophistication to how raw Schaffner aims to paint his protagonist, even if it doesn’t give credence to the millions of lives that were lost because of him. You sense it’s this down-to-earth portrait of a frail leader that the film truly wants to be.
Much like Schaffner’s Best Picture winner from the year prior (Patton) Nicholas and Alexandra is reluctant to indict anyone (save for the sleazy drunkard Rasputin). It uses a sprawling narrative, documenting the exile, and its precluding events, of Russia’s last Tsar Nicholas II and his family. Much like Patton, the film borders on the sympathetic with its protagonist, accentuating him not as an iron-fisted ruler, but as a dwindling man. There’s a sobering benign quality to Nicholas, despite his hawkish teetering, which gives him an every-day-man humanity.
Why, then, does the film endlessly sift from lavish castles, to ballrooms, to battlefields? Why does it sway from revolutionaries looking to overthrow the Tsar, to those in Nicholas’s inner circle? All of whom are treated like peripherals, more narrative distractions than salient parts.
Patton was epic in scale, but thematically it had a very simple, channelled focus. Its intimate study of a man clutching for purpose was anything but epic. The genius of Patton was how personal and up-close it allowed us to be. Nicholas and Alexandra is lacking in this intimacy through its restless cramming of period detail. The central relationship, that of a tactless leader and his steadfast wife who owns him (Janet Suzman), never feels authentic. Their exchanges are caricatured, sketchy outlines of a relationship, sorely missing the interpersonal connectedness of a truly affectionate man and wife. It’s not until the film’s final act where the family are exiled and transported from more vast and opulent scenes, that the characters are allowed to breathe, to become something more defined.
For much of its overlong runtime the film feels more like an appropriation for sumptuous production design than an attempt at rendering a human mind. The mastery of this design isn’t to be understated. Combined with Yvonne Blake and Antonio Castello’s costumes, the set and art direction is wonderfully grand and transporting. But they’re not what this story needs.
There are also tonal inconsistencies. The film is peculiarly drip-fed moments of playfulness which kill the urgency of the looming revolution dead. One wishes Lenin (Michael Byrant) and Trotsky (Brian Cox) had more to do, as its in the fleeting moments with the revolutionaries that the film is at its most virile and progressing.
There’s something burrowed in Schaffner’s central duo that’s waiting to come out, but too often do they feel beside the point for this something to materialise. If the film had been more personal, more blazon in its efforts to get close to Nicholas and Alexandra, then it could have become something more consistently stirring. However it only seems to graze the surface, a crime for a 190 minute movie.