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Anastasia Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 July 2003


20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: Film Predates MPAA Ratings System
starring: Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes, Akim Tamiroff
release year: 1956
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture: Three-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

“Anastasia” is an example of ‘50s studio moviemaking at its solid best – the actors are dead serious, the costumes are gorgeous, the music is sweeping, the script is a triumph of craftsmanship over lifelikeness, it’s all a bit over the top, and somehow it works perfectly.

Based on Marcelle Maurette’s play, “Anastasia” takes its premise from an actual historical incident. After Tsar Nicholas was deposed in the Russian Revolution, he and the Russian Royal Family were executed, but it has been rumored that one daughter, Anastasia, escaped. The film, scripted by Arthur Laurents from an adaptation by Guy Bolton, opens in 1928 Paris, where a trio of formerly royal Russians, now reduced to con artistry, having been living off the proceeds of getting their fellow exiled countrymen to invest in a search for Anastasia. However, the plug is about to be pulled in the scam and the gentlemen are about to be thrown in jail for fraud. The only solution is to get someone to impersonate Anastasia – there’s an added bonus, as if she can “prove” to the dowager Empress (Helen Hayes) that she’s the real princess, she inherits $10 million. The leader of the group, Bounine (Yul Brynner), has heard about a woman released from a mental institution who for awhile thought she was Anastasia. He finds the lady in question (Ingrid Bergman) on the verge of suicide. Even she isn’t sure who she is, although she mistrusts her new sponsors. For Bounine’s part, he’s a thorough skeptic. Even so, some details of “Anna’s” story ring oddly true, and Bounine starts to privately wonder if it could possibly be real – but will the Empress believe the woman? More importantly, what does “Anna” herself believe?

As the screenplay and the characters are already sharply aware of the potential for melodrama, “Anastasia” is much shrewder than one might imagine going in – it comments intelligently on itself as it moves along. Bergman is so absolutely vulnerable that she winds up being enormously affecting, though (a matter of personal taste) the chemistry between her and Brynner that’s supposed to convince us they’re falling for each other doesn’t really materialize. Intriguingly, this aspect of the movie tends not to matter very much, as Bergman has great chemistry with Hayes, who is lives up to the empress’s reputation as a dignified powerhouse.

The 20th Century Fox DVD team has done a truly praiseworthy job on restoring the print for this edition. Should anyone doubt the level of improvement, the special features include a split screen side-by-side comparison of the original 1991 print transfer with this 1997 edition, with the left-hand side of the screen showing the faded, glitch-marred earlier version and the right-hand side displaying the bright, crisp images of the version on the disc. Reds and pinks are especially vivid, and edges are clean and clear.

As for the sound, the movie was made in 1956, which translates to, don’t expect too much, although given its limitations, “Anastasia” boasts a very good soundtrack. (The 3.5 stars rating indicates that the restorers did excellent work given the age of their materials.) While the box advertises a 4.0 mix, the center channel is in fact engaged as well – it’s only the subwoofer in a 5.1 system that is not utilized. Dialogue scenes play in the center and mains, with the rears kicking in whenever composer Alfred Newman’s score swells. Chapter 12 does have a nicely realistic horse carriage foley effect.

Extras on the disc include a very informative and passionately enthusiastic commentary track from film historian Sylvia Stoddard, who talks both about the movie’s background and the world history that informs the storyline, writer Arthur Laurents, who has plenty of anecdotes, Helen Hayes’ son actor James MacArthur and movie music expert John Burlingame. Burlingame’s comments will be of particular interest to audiophiles, as he speaks knowledgeably about both the particulars of “Anastasia’s” score and the world of film scoring in general. The disc also includes the “Biography” special on the real Anastasia – a helpful inclusion for those who would like to know more – and some ancient newsreel footage of the real Anastasia, her father the Tsar and the rest of her family.

Director Anatole Litvak creates a sense of cinematic spectacle, even while he maintains a theatrical sense of pacing and performance – we admire shot compositions while still having an emotional experience that is closer to something more often inspired by stage plays than film. Seen today, “Anastasia” is intriguing and fairly moving, just in a way that is different from what we usually associate with movie dramas.

more details
sound format:
English 4.0 Surround; French Mono; Spanish Mono
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Audio Commentary Track with Screenwriter Arthur Laurents, Film Historian Sylvia Stoddard, Film Music Expert John Burlingame and James MacArthur; “Biography” Special on Anastasia Romanov; Movietone Newsreels of Film Premieres; Footage of Actual Romanov Family; Print Restoration Comparison; Theatrical Trailer; English and Spanish Subtitles; English Closed-Captioning
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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