As captivating as a fairytale told by Grimm, Anatole Litvak’s Anastasia (1956) is the rapturous flight into escapist fantasy. It seeks to reexamine one of history’s lost opportunities, though only in a superficial glamorous way. What if the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, heir to the Russian throne survived the 1912 massacre? Happily, screenwriter, Arthur Laurents distances his scenario from that tragedy – focusing instead on a trio of militant con artists living in Paris.
The lead conspirator is General Sergei Pavlovich Bounine (Yul Brynner) a former member of the Russian royal guard – reduced in status to proprietor of a Russian restaurant. Bounine is determined to find a girl able to impersonate the grand duchess Anastasia. He is aided in his search for the right candidate by slippery socialite, Boris Adreivich Chernov (Akim Tamaroff) and educator/philosopher Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin (Sasha Pitoeff) Together these three hope to fool the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Helen Hayes) into handing over Anastasia’s inheritance.
But their plot goes awry when the girl they settle on (Ingrid Bergman) begins to recall dates, events and people she could not possibly know of...that is, unless she actually is the grand duchess. So, is this mysterious woman, plucked from obscurity with no past, actually the long lost granddaughter of the royal family? The screenplay is clever enough never to provide us with a concrete answer - a fitting end the 20th century's most tragic and compelling vanishing act.
With the gentle coaxing of Baroness Elena Von Livenbaum (Martita Hunt) Bounine finagles an audience between the girl and the Dowager Empress. At first impervious to the girl's tender reminiscing, the Dowager's proud wounded heart gradually softens and she accepts the girl as her granddaughter. (In real life no such affirmation was forthcoming from the royal house).
Now, the impostor becomes romantically involved with the Dowager's grandson, Prince Paul Von Haraldburg (Ivan Desny). And although their whirlwind romance leads to a proposal of marriage, the girl has since realized that in finding what she believes to be her true identity, the satisfaction and peace of mind she sought for herself has still proven to be quite elusive. Does she love the Prince, or is her heart drawn to Bounine, who has begun to harbor his own feelings towards his trained pupil?
At the time Anastasia was being prepared, Ingrid Bergman was persona non gratia in Hollywood - her scandalous affair with Italian director, Roberto Rosselini fueling an overwhelming critical backlash in the press and from the public. At Arthur Laurents’ insistence, and backed by director Litvak’s support, 20th Century Fox reluctantly cast Bergman in the film. The result: one of the all time great comebacks in cinema history. Embraced by the public, Bergman’s performance also won her the Best Actress Oscar.
Fox Home Video has made a valiant first attempt to 'restore' Anastasia to its Cinemascope brilliance on DVD. Previous editions of the film on laserdisc and VHS had been plagued by orangy flesh tones and excessive amounts of film grain. This presentation modestly corrects these issues and properly balances the color spectrum, though at times flesh tones remain on the pasty side. Contrast is solid and fine detail are nicely realized.
But whites are more beige than white. A slight amount of edge enhancement and some pixelization crop up in a few scenes but nothing that will distract. The audio is a 4.0 remastering of the original 6 track stereo and recreates the directionalized sound field of early Cinemascope stereo. By today's ears its rather unnatural sounding, with dialogue and effects 'travelling' across the screen as characters walk from left to right, but it works as a recreation of vintage stereo.
Extras include a Biography Special on the real Anastasia, a Movietones trailer, restoration comparison and the film's original theatrical trailer - plus an insightful audio commentary by film historian and author Sylvia Stothard and screenwriter Arthur Laurents. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)