Friday, October 14, 2011

Janet Suzman in Nicholas and Alexandra

Janet Suzman received her only Best Actress nomination to date for playing Empress Alexandra, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II in the Best Picture nominated epic, Nicholas and Alexandra. If you think about the fact that she was nominated in the Most Promising Newcomer category at the Golden Globes, you could be quite surprised that she received this nomination but if you look at the role, you can see that it's something that the Academy usually goes for. In the supporting category. Such a role in a leading field is not that much of a contender anymore. While as a supporting role, wives shine the screen and add lots of loveability to the movie, in a leading role they can rarely carry a movie (and receive more Oscar love than a nomination). Add that this movie was Janet Suzman's first big screen role and you'll easily see that she wasn't much of a contender (especially in a field with probably the most famous and respected actresses of the time).

Nicholas and Alexandra surprised me. Although I was a bit afraid of watching it as I'm not much of a fan of epics, this one was a most pleasant surprise. First of all, the art direction and the costumes are unbelievably beautiful. The direction is very well-done, the screenplay is well-written (well-done is the perfect expression to describe this movie). The performances are very good and I was especially surprised to see Sir Laurence Olivier who was excellent in his tiny part. Michael Jayston is fine as Nicholas, I just have some issues with him, especially the way he shows Nicholas' shock (he's really wide-eyed). Overall, it's a really great film but I'm not sure if I want to watch it more than once.

I really don't know what to think about Janet Suzman. This was the only movie of hers that I've seen but from what I saw, she appears to be a really talented actress. I usually like to say a few words about the performer herself and compare the performance to other works of hers but since I cannot do that, I have to say that I'd very much like to more of her movies.

Janet Suzman's part as Empress Alexandra is a quite underwritten one but I think Janet did her best to make her a real human being. Alexandra is a very conservative and proud woman who firmly believes that the power of her husband comes from God and therefore he's much superior. It's interesting, though, that she didn't make Alexandra snobbish or even that cold, actually there're lots of deep feelings inside her. Most of all, she feels guilty about her son's sickness (haemophilia), which he inherited from her and she becomes overly protective of her son. However, the appearance of Rasputin, a very strange and scary turns her world upside down. The most moving parts of her performance (in my opinion) do not come in the end with the imprisonment and the execution but at the beginning when she's hoping to get some kind of an absolution for her sins and for what she caused to her own son. It's really moving and heart-breaking the witness all the sufferings of this woman as despite the occasional unlikeability of hers, you just develop a connection with her. Personally, I felt lots of sympathy for this woman who was fighting for her family, her husband and most of all, her son.

Alexandra's relationship with Rasputin is the highlight of the characters as apart from this Janet didn't get that much to work with. Naturally, the scenes with her injured son are always very moving but in the second part of the movie she simply doesn't get the material to become as great as she was in the beginning. I'm really not criticising her as I feel she was very good in the second half, too, I just felt that the character was much more in the background and didn't get that many moments to shine. The scenes with the exile and the execution are very intense and memorable but mostly because how engaging the story is and not because of the performances. The epic movie just overshadows the actors here because you just cannot overlook the magnificent technical part, the costumes, the interiors and the beauty of the surroundings.

It's a problem, though, that I felt that the character wasn't developed enough. She remains the same person in the end, which could be justified but somehow I was expecting some further explanation why Alexandra didn't change. Moreover, I never felt that the fact that Alexandra's principles came through. I think she could have been turned into a character whose moral strength just amazes you. Something like we saw from Helen Mirren's The Queen would not have hurt her. It would have given more nobility and dignity to the character. Not that it needed much more but I felt that this absence hurt both the character's development and the movie itself. We do not get those teary-eyed, uplifting monologues that supportive wives give and while I'm not that fond of them, I would have expected something like that. I think the beginning shows brilliantly how great this performance could have been but in the end it was only very good, which is fine, I guess, but it's very annoying to see greatness not manifest when it could have.

In the end, I just keep wondering what Audrey Hepburn would have done with this role. I guess she would have made Alexandra more noble and reserved but Janet added some irresistable pride and even a bit of arrogancy to this character that never ceased to impress me and eventually, I don't have negative thoughts about her, I'm just disappointed and a bit angry about the wasted potential. It's almost haunting work and really great, it just could have been even better.
What do you think?


Louis Morgan said...

I have yet to see this one although I am rather interested in it.

dinasztie said...

I can see why. It's a great, very interesting movie in every way.

Sparrow said...

It's a w o n d e r f u l movie, and the cast was excellently selected. This 1971 movie was instrumental into forever after drawing me -- then a 20-year-old girl -- into the Romanov's tragic story. WELL worth viewing. The bitter truth of the Romanov's end shocks me even to this day.

Joseph Logue said...

I saw this movie over 20 times--in the theater. I was so involved in the story line, not knowing much about history at the time. I was about 12. I was most fascinated by that aspect--I wondered how did a Russian Empress be born a German princess yet still a granddaughter of Queen Victoria. That started me on royal history and genealogy, subjects I still study 45+ years later. I wrote to Ms. Suzman (Dame Janet now) a very long letter and she wrote me back, which was most kind. The movie is not as involving as when I was a kid, but I still like to watch it now and then. The one thing I liked about her performance is her voice. It's rich and plummy in the beginning, and hoarse and careworn towards the end. I've never really seen that duplicated by others who play characters across many years.