I don’t think you could say I prefer old movies to new movies but I am definitely an old movie buff. The book by Ariel Lawhon, I Was Anastasia, rekindled my interest in the longtime puzzle of whether the Grand Duchess Anastasia survived the massacre of the Russian imperial family in Ekaterinburg in 1918. It led me to research on the internet, a vast number of documentaries, other books, and, naturally, to this 1956 black and white movie starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner.
In the book, Anna Anderson — claimant to the identity of the youngest daughter of the Tsar — meets with Ingrid Bergman and signs an agreement allowing the movie to go forward. When the script was written, it was based on a play written by Marcel Maurette who only learned after it was published that Anna Anderson was still alive and therefore 20th Century Fox has to have Anna’s agreement to make the movie. But Ms. Bergman is only interested in Anna’s story. She tells Anna,
I know what that feels like. To be disgraced. To be hated and driven to extremes. But I don’t know what drove you to feel those things. And I can’t make this film until I do.
So I had to watch the movie. I’m sure I had seen it decades ago on TV but I needed it to be fresh in light of the book and the research on the internet it led me to. The movie is delightful — with a different ending, of course, because there was still much more of the story to unfold. Bergman is in full command of the many facets of this woman who has experienced memory loss and gradually regains snippets; she is desperate when she decides to throw herself into the Seine, gentle and familiar with the dowager empress (Helen Hayes), imperious with members of the former court, frustrated and impatient with General Bounine (played by Brynner), and flirtatious with Prince Paul to whom she was engaged before the revolution. She won 3 awards for best actress: an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and the David di Donatello award for best foreign actress. Brynner is arrogant and manipulative to start, only interested in the fortune, but becomes infatuated and jealous along the way, willing to toss aside his whole agenda for the sake of her love. He won the National Board of Review award for best actor.
The plot is well paced, beginning with Anna distracted and distraught, throwing herself in the Seine and being jailed for attempted suicide. While we are never told if she is or is not truly Grand Duchess Anastasia, as the story moves forward Bergman’s brilliant acting provides many hints that she is indeed who Bounine claims her to be even though from the beginning he is certain she is a fraud and doesn’t care — he can make her into the lost duchess either way. Hayes is brilliant as the forbidding dowager empress who slowly unbends to relive the tender connection she had with her favourite granddaughter and then to accept the seeming inevitable when Anna absconds into the night with Bounine.
Some of the stage-like settings are offset by opulent ballroom scenes and wonderful scenery and it is interesting to see the imagined lives of white Russian exiles, many of whom left their homeland with next to nothing. The inspired music by Alfred Newman was nominated for an Oscar. There have been other movie adaptations of this story, most notably the animated Disney version, but if you haven’t seen this movie, your experience of the mysterious Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova is incomplete. * * * *