ANASTASIA (Anatole Litvak, 1956)

Despite its uncertain tone that unexpectedly resolves itself in comedy and romance, Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia touches on momentous subjects: historical ambiguities; the exploitation of these due to greed and the spirit of adventure; the problem of identity, including the eternal mystery of identity; however embroiled one is in history, an individual’s right to self-determination. However muddled and indistinct it may be, this film is likely to fascinate us, if only around the edges.
     The play on which it is based, by Guy Bolton and Marcelle Maurette, and adapted by Bolton and Arthur Laurents, is in turn based on (considerably amended) actual events. A patient in a German asylum came to be considered an impossibly surviving daughter of the Red massacre of Tsar Nikolai II and his imperial family—in certain quarters, an index of public fancy and nostalgia. Anna Koreff, the film’s central character, is based on this “Anna Anderson”; destitute and suicidal in Paris streets in 1928, she is “rescued” and trained to convince the world—or at least who would be Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov’s grandmother, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna—that she is who her promoters, a group of White Russian exiles, say she is. In the course of his training her, however, General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine himself comes to wonder whether Anna isn’t indeed Anastasia. In any case, he falls in love with her—or with whoever.
     Ingrid Bergman won best actress prizes for her vivid, remarkable work: the David di Donatello Award, Oscar, Golden Globe, the prize of the New York critics. (In an irritatingly overly technical performance, Helen Hayes is considerably less effective as the Dowager Empress.) But the film’s cold, distanced and (what he saw as) disdainful nature drew young critic François Truffaut’s contempt.
     Yul Brynner strikingly plays Bounine.

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