Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Anastasia (1956 / 1997)

At the beginning of the Russian Civil War, Czar Nicholas II, along with his family, was assassinated by the Bolsheviks. However, there were rumors that his daughter, the Grand Duchess Anastasia, had escaped. As years passed and rumors intensified, several women came forward claiming to be Anastasia. These rumors serve as the backstory for two very different films about the legendary princess.

The first film is a fairly straightforward historical drama, based loosely on the real life Anastasia-imposter Anna Anderson. The remake is a fantastic animated musical adventure designed to vie with Disney’s pantheon of princesses. If it is dubious that such a wildly divergent interpretation could be considered a remake, one need only look to the film credits where it claims a basis in the 1956 Arthur Laurents screenplay. Who am I to argue?
The Plot
It is ten years since the fall of the House of Romanov, and rumors of Anastasia’s survival are on everybody’s lips. It is in this atmosphere that a group of men intend to present an imposter to the Dowager Empress, Anastasia’s grandmother, in hopes of attaining a significant financial reward. The men take in a young vagrant woman bearing a resemblance to the princess in hopes of passing her off as the real thing. The woman suffers amnesia, affording convenient pretense for the conmen as well as legitimate questions about her true identity.

The woman agrees to join in the men’s ruse if only to gain an identity for herself. In the course of her Pygmalion-esque training, she becomes more and more convincing as the princess Anastasia, causing even her handlers to wonder if she could really be the lost heiress. At the same time, she and her instructor begin to fall for one another. Still, their relationship remains distant and strained, both knowing that if their ruse pays off, they cannot be together.

Anastasia ‘56
Driving the original is the ambiguousness about identity of the young woman called Anna. Is she the Romanov princess, or isn’t she? For the most part, Ingrid Bergman convincingly vacillates between doubt, confusion, and certainty over her identity as Anastasia. To pull it off, she starts her performance from a place of extreme vulnerability with occasional flashes of regality and moves toward a mostly confident demeanor, albeit with a grand chink in the form of needing acceptance from the Empress.
This ambiguity is never resolved. It comes to a head when Anna and the Empress (Helen Hayes) meet in a rather unconvincing scene where the Empress’ stubborn skepticism is suddenly broken by a peculiar mannerism of Anna’s. But even then, the old woman begs Anna, if she is not in fact the princess, to never tell her. And so the question hangs there and, although it is no longer a threat to her or anyone else’s plans, it remains a point of intrigue until the end.

Yul Brynner’s typically stoic performance as General Bounine makes for believable cynicism that Bergman can play against as she becomes more convinced of her identity as a Romanov. However, in all honesty, the same stoicism does not lend itself to portraying a budding romance between him and his pupil. Nor does it lend credence to his necessary change of mind about her identity. So, even though it is hinted at in various scenes, the romantic subplot feels like something of a surprise when one moment the two are sniping at one another and then next they are running off together.

There is no doubt that this is a high-quality film, with lavish sets and costumes galore in addition to the estimable talent. Bergman even won her second Academy Award for the role, though I don’t think she was as deserving here as she was on the other occasions. All the same, the moments of greatest anticipation never really pay off and the reason for the rather lengthy third act doesn’t become apparent until the final moments. I can’t help but think that a different actor in Brynner’s role could have clarified that.

Anastasia ‘97
In the remake, there are no doubts about the identity of Anastasia (voiced by Meg Ryan). Though she does not remember her past, the audience is clued in via prologue that she is, in fact, the real Anastasia. What’s more, she seems largely unfazed by her amnesia and from the outset displays an anachronistically feminist attitude typical of films from (but not limited to) the late 90s. In fact, this Anastasia doesn’t display a single moment of vulnerability in the entire film, robbing her of almost all of her emotional journey. That’s too high a price to pay to portray a “strong female character.”
Because of this, the eventual meeting with the Empress (Angela Lansbury) holds no anticipation or impact. Either it is a foregone conclusion that the Empress will recognize her granddaughter, or Anastasia will be self-assured enough to go one without recognition. The only saving grace is that the actual moment of recognition comes off a little more plausibly, perhaps because the rewrite included some props, i.e. physical evidence to bolster Anastasia’s claims.

Furthermore, since Anastasia doesn’t seem to care whether she is the real princess, the life is also sucked out of her interactions with Dimitri (John Cusack) and Vladimir (Kelsey Grammer)—a splitting of the Bounine character. Their training is just a game and has no impact on her psyche, which isn’t fragile anyway. Finally, what the original romantic subplot lacked in believability, this one lacks in subtlety. That Anastasia and Dimitri fall in love is just another forgone conclusion.

Having neutered all the points of interest inherit in the story, it actually seems necessary to inject the evil undead villain Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd) and his talking-bat sidekick, Bartok (Hank Azaria). Sadly, despite being added to increase kid-appeal, they just don’t make up for the aforementioned losses. Instead, they mainly serve as comic foils and an occasional excuse for some action. The bottom line is, this story was never suited to adaptation for children and the Rasputin character underlines the fact.
Final Thoughts
One tangential remark I feel compelled to make is that the 1956 live-action version, bereft of special effects and comic relief, is the faster-paced of the two films. Not only does it move at a better clip than the film that came 40 years later, it seems to move at a break-neck pace compared to most of its contemporaries. Still, I would only recommend the original if one is particularly interested in the Romanovs and the remake I would only suggest to animation buffs (like myself).

FYI: Andrew has asked me to contribute articles devoted to animated features, which I gladly intend to do. Strictly as an animated feature, there is much more to be said of 1997’s Anastasia, and I am inclined to revisit it as such. Stay tuned!

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