Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986)

It was this miniseries, “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna,” that first hooked me on Russian history (Russian history is loaded with fantastic stories, far more exciting, glamorous and cruel than this one, but the episode of Anastasia is as enticing an entrance point as anything but Catherine the Great or Ivan the Terrible and we did Catherine the Great here already), a hold that to this day thrills me.  It’s that good, truly one of the best miniseries of the 1980s.  Yes, it takes license, but the real story is not quite as vivacious, and since it was covered in secrecy and scorn, why not invent some details?  The only facts in the story are gone by 1918.  After that, anyone can have pretty much free reign.  Unlike other “true story” miniseries, this one isn’t actually altering facts, just adding details. 

This is a retelling of the story you may have seen in the Ingrid Bergman-Yul Brynner masterpiece “Anastasia,” but that one did not even attempt much truth (sumptuous though it is).  This one is closer.  First, let’s discuss the facts.  Not disputed is the revolution of 1917 that overthrew the Tsar, who was sent to an outpost with his family and a few servants until the Communists finally solidified their power and had the royal family murdered.  A few years later, a woman popped up claiming to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of the Tsar.  For decades until her death in 1980, the woman swore to it.  She had knowledge and even marks on her body that most thought impossible to have unless she was actually Anastasia.  Throw in possibly missing bones from the pit where the dead family was tossed and maybe there was a chance.  The royal family in exile refused to accept Anna Anderson (as she called herself), mainly for political and financial reasons.  By the time this movie was made, that much was the truth.  Since then, however, DNA testing has proven that Anna Anderson was indeed not the Grand Duchess.  Read Peter Kurth’s  book (on which this was based) for more details.

In just that description, the story of Anastasia is ripe for miniseriesalization.  Royalty, tragedy, mystery, epic span, that’s the kind of stuff the American miniseries thrived on.  Plus, it has parts for oodles of slumming actors (although I wouldn’t call this slumming as it’s so beautifully done).  It doesn’t worry about the truth because it doesn’t have to.  Telling the story is more important than the story itself in such a murky historical situation, and this one clicks!

In 1916, St. Petersburg was still the domain of the Tsar and his family, the wealthiest and most autocratic of all the European royal families (though not that many would remain by the end of World War I).  At a grand ball, we meet them: the Tsar (Omar Sharif), the Tsarina (Claire Bloom), the Dowager Empress (Olivia de Havilland, in a Golden Globe-winning/Emmy-nominated performance), four daughters and young Tsarevich Alexis, the sickly heir to the throne.  Okay, fine Omar Sharif is not exactly ideally cast as Nicholas II, but he paints the Tsar with the sympathy this movie desires.  Starting off the dancing, he picks Anastasia, who is stopped by her grandmother and told, “you are my special love, you know.”  Supposedly she was the darling of the family. 

A narrator barges in with news from the estimable James Goldman’s screenplay that just two months later, “the time was ripe for revolution” based on a number of historical factors.  Just to get it out of the way, Tsarina Alexandra confides in her friend Sophie (Andrea Brettlebauer) that “those terrible people” Lenin, Trotsky and the rest are “in exile” and life would be better “if only Rasputin were alive…he was a saint, you know.”  History has told the tale of Rasputin often enough that we can skip it here.  The rising tide of revolution is kept from the children, at least as much as possible, with the Tsarina telling them only half truths. 

Even after the Tsar’s abdication in the summer of 1917, the royal family still lives in luxury, with tutors and servants aplenty, at least until they are banished to Siberia.  The Tsar assures his children “by Christmas, we shall all be in London…what matters most is that we are all together.”  Ready to go, Anastasia takes one last whirl in the imperial dance floor, covered in darkness.  “I shan’t be here again.  We won’t be coming back here.  Not ever,” is her prophecy to her governess Sasha (Carol Gillies). 

At the train station, a surly soldier demands to know why the Tsar has brought so many people, the entire household.  The soldier says, “I have orders only for your family and the doctor,” but the Tsar tries to cling to a vestige of power and scoffs that “I have endured enough.”  The soldier backs down and lets everyone on the train, disguised as a Red Cross train.  Christmas passes and they are still in Siberia, with governments in Moscow changing.  Life is not unbearable…yet.

That doesn’t happen until the Communists show up, relieving the army of command.  “We did try,” the soldier says after being dismissed.  “Where are our friends?  Where’s King George?  Where’s President Wilson?” an increasingly agitated Tsarina wants to know of her husband, who has the reality of the situation etched on his face.  “Where’s your mother?  Safe in England?  How come she can’t make them listen.  She could always make you listen,” the Tsarina snarls.  That lacks a little historical accuracy, though Alexandra wouldn’t have known that.  Maria Fedorovna just barely escaped Russia with her life after a dicey time evading one government or another. 

Anastasia (played as a child by Jennifer Dundas along with Christian Bale’s Alexis) is cheeky, demanding to know of the Comrade in charge what their crime is and then why he’s so hostile to them.  “Have you ever been in prison?” she asks.  He has, for “printing leaflets.”  “That’s a lot more than I’ve done,” the perceptive princess notes.  Alexis, having just delivered a speech to his sister about how he’s always known he would die young, decides to prove it by riding a sled down the stairs, a dangerous move for such a severe hemophiliac.  Predictably, Alexis is bed-bound and the Comrade is angry, saying, “I have no time to spare…fetch me a doctor from the town, I want another man’s opinion” after hearing it could be months before Alexis can be moved. 

Rather than going to Moscow as promised, the royal family is taken to remote Yekaterinburg in the driving rain, where their servants are dismissed except for Dr. Markov (Arnold Diamond).  “You are of no earthly use to me.  You are free to go,” the loyal retainers are told, standing in a confused huddle in the rain.  Weeks go by and the family is told nothing of the outside world until hearing artillery in the distance, their saviors. 

In the middle of the night, they are woken up and told “there is an emergency” and they must be moved.  What follows is one of the 20th Century’s most defining moments, soaked in truths, half-truths and outright lies by ardent royalists, historical apologists, Communists and everyone else with a theory to share.  One era must end in order for a new one to begin.  We were told that on a very clinical and rational level by Communist intransigence, though nearly a century later it’s become obvious that fear was as much a factor as anything else.  The key word in the earlier sentence is “must.”  In order for the Communists to secure control over the country, there must be no rivals for power.  Any rival could undermine their shaky government. 

But history isn’t our reason for being here.  The American miniseries is.  The family and the doctor wait in a dark basement cell for the next move, not the one expected.  “My orders have finally come.  I am to execute you all.”  An overwhelming volley of shots ring out.  With that, the Romanov dynasty comes to a tragic end.  The Romanovs-in-exile are the de facto heads of Russia, but there will be no resurrection of rule.

Berlin, 1923.  A gaunt young woman in rags (Amy Irving) ascends a bridge, crosses herself and jumps.  She is saved and brought to a hospital, forced to stay in the psych ward because no one knows who she is, and that’s where attempted suicides go.  Clara (Angela Pleasance), apparently convinces she’s a refuge from a Dickens miniseries sporting the dumbest of cockney accents, assures the woman, “I’m as sane as you are.”  Yeah, that’s why they have given you 80s crazy person make-up (you know the look I’m talking about). 

Dr. Hauser (Edward Fox) takes on the woman’s case.  He finds out about the large amount of bullet scars on her body, assuming, like everyone else, that “she got them in the war” since they date back to that period.  She’s also “had at least one child and there are signs of malnutrition.”  The woman’s accent is so upper class British that she can’t possibly be working-class German.  That’s actually a rare misstep in this production, but typical of the time period.  In order to be a European aristocrat, one has to be able to speak upper class British.  Forget that she’s Russian, or maybe German.  Anna Anderson was most definitely not British.  She has no memories and cannot answer Dr. Hauser’s questions.  Why did she jump?  “I can’t imagine,” she says rather regally, if frightened. 

Well, she doesn’t make much of a case for herself with her “I can’t remember” routine, which leaves her with scary-as-a-clown Clara.  “Once I see a face, I never forget it,” Clara keeps telling her, knowing she’s seen the mystery woman before.  She instantly figures it out, the woman is the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and she has a magazine picture under her bed to prove it!  “Are you a princess?” Clara asks.  Dr. Hauser doesn’t initially get very far with her.  She can’t remember why she has scars, but she knows her native language is Russian.  How?  “I dream in Russian,” but she refuses to speak it.  When the police return for their report, they need a picture and the big flash sends her into a rage.  “You tried to kill me, but I didn’t die!” she yells, going into such a rage that she has to be sedated and put into a padded cell with a straight jacket.

Since the woman has thrown out the name Alexis in her howling, Dr. Hauser asks if it was her dog.  “Don’t be ridiculous,” she chides, but the woman initially refuses to say more than “they lied to us, that’s all they ever did.  They promised we’d be safe and look what happened.”  She claims that “they” would kill her if “they knew I was still alive,” as Dr. Hauser gets closer to the truth.  She then goes on to describe the shooting and notes that she wished she had died.  “I’m the only one who is left.  Why was I saved?  Why take my brother and not me?  He might have been the Tsar someday.”

Bingo!

“I am her Imperial Highness, the Grand Duchess Anastasia,” she finally reveals, managing to convey a regal air through an exhausted body and face. 

Dr. Hauser is not convinced, and particularly peeved when it’s leaked to the press.  But, he’s also rational.  “How many have there been?  Dozens in the last year, they keep cropping up like daisies,” he tells his nurse.  It’s true.  There was something of a cottage industry of fake Anastasias, along with fake Olgas, fake TatianasHauser perks up.  No one has ever mentioned the dog’s name before. 

The doctor invites family members to come see her, but the head of the family keeps them away, all except for Prince Erich (a devastatingly handsome Jan Niklaus, who is invented for this story as the Yul Brynner character was in the other version), a very distant relative.  “I never thought she’d be so beautiful” is his reaction,” since there weren’t too many lookers among European royals of the period.  Anna, as she is now called, sits in a chair with a stiff back and majestic bearing to receive her visitor.  “You’ve come to test me,” she immediately realizes, so she tells Erich what she remembers and what she’s been told: she survived, was found by a peasant, was taken to Bucharest and lived there recovering for two years.  She remembers nothing of Bucharest, not an address, “no witnesses to anything,” as Prince Erich puts it.  She married the peasant and bore him a son, but both died, but the baby died and the husband was murdered for her jewels.  It’s the jewels that interest Dr. Hauser as they had always been cited as a possible way for survival.  Sewn into their gowns (a historically accurate fact), the gems could have deflected bullets.  Okay, not the zillions that went into the Romanovs, but it’s been an important rallying point.  She wandered around after that, remembering her paternal grandmother, but got as far as Berlin. 

“Drivel.  I’ve never heard such patent drivel in all my life.”  That’s the word of the Grand Duke Cyril (Rex Harrison), the family’s leader, and the one with the most to lose should one of the Tsar’s daughters be alive (his own relatives had nothing but nasty things to say about him in the decades following the Russian Revolution, and this miniseries treats him no better).  Cyril can easily shoot holes in Anna’s story, especially the peasant and all that nonsense.  Erich decides to “risk it,” though Cyril feels there is no risk, and bring Anna to someone who knew her, not a relative who barely every saw her.  Grand Duchess Victoria (Rachel Gurney) takes Prince Erich’s side and goes off to find people who fit that bill.  “You should meet her,” Erich tells Cyril.  “Never.” 

Anna is brought to the mansion, where it has been decided Sophie will be the one to meet her.  She has been forced to confront many of the frauds, and this one is particularly challenging because “of all the girls, Anna was my favorite,” she tells Victoria.  It starts off poorly when Anna asks if they have met before.  “You should recognize me, Anastasia would!” Sophie barks.  But, Anna gets there, though Sophie is unconvinced.  She has no items of Anastasia’s and she refuses to speak Russian (upper crust British will have to do).  “It’s not her face, it’s not her voice.  I don’t know who you are,” is the judgment.  Anna falls to the floor in dejection.  Prince Erich is “convinced she is real” and tells the doctor so, because he saw Sophie’s face.  He refuses to give up. 

In fact, Erich is so full of energy for her cause that he takes Anna to his home, buys her a wardrobe and forces her to confront the world.  He explains to her that his family was killed by the Bolsheviks and then the fortune was seized when the Kaiser abdicated.  “The truth is, we were born to late.  We don’t belong in the 1920s.  I was raised to be a prince and you know what that means.  I can talk along with any subject, but I have no useful skills,” he tells her.  If you are a cynic, this is the time to start wondering why Erich believes her.  Is it to regain his lost life?  Anna wonders, and his answer is awfully wan.  The cynics can still hope that he’s a rascal and a liar. 

As Erich launches Anna into society, they of course fall in love, a gooey situation that we knew was inevitable and simply have to suffer through because it’s a miniseries and these are the rules.  “Mama never let us go to restaurants, or if she did, I can’t remember,” Anna says (it’s a pretty safe bet that the Russian royal family never went to a restaurant).  “Poor Princess,” Erich jokes and then gives her a portrait of a young Anastasia right there in the restaurant. 

When a lady friend of Erich’s sees him in the restaurant, she gets all catty and demands an introduction.  “Isabel von Hohenstauffen…Anastasia Romanov,” he smoothly announces to a shocked Isabel (Elke Sommer), who not wonders aloud of Cyril knows, but then snarls at how Anna has so bewitches Erich.  “It’s simply too amusing, you introducing me to her with a straight face.  Me, a Hohenstauffen?” she laughs, though her familial dynasty had been dead for centuries.  “It might interest you to know I knew the Romanovs, and you are nothing like them, my dear, nothing.  I don’t know where you get the nerve…all she wants is money,” the aging Isabel intones.  “She’s an empty-headed bitch,” Erich tells Anna, noting that situations like this will occur.

At Erich’s summer house, he has umpteen pictures laid out to prompt Anna.  “Oh, Erich, is this really going to work?”  “It’s the only way,” he replies, awfully sure of his plan.  That’s all well and good, but the bad news is that the Dowager Empress has denied her request to be seen.  “I only want what’s mine, my name,” Anna complains, but Erich reminds her of “the power and position” that accompany the name and the family is concerned about all of that, even if she isn’t.  “We must find a memory in that head of yours that only Anastasia could know, something in no book or photograph,” he tells her matter-of-fact.  And then day in, day out, he drills her.  Eventually, she just happens to remember her mother’s brother paying a visit in 1916, which should strike you as odd (it does to Erich) because Germany and Russia were on opposite sides of the war and the Duke of Hesse paying a visit would had to have been done with the utmost secrecy. 

The great Olivia de Havilland works her talent effortlessly.  Her daughter tries to convince her to see the woman, but the Dowager Empress knows the pitfalls of that, so she rallies the troops.  “How many have we?” she asks, before being wheeled in to see them.  “Sixteen?  Sixteen Romanovs in one room?  It’s been some time,” she marvels, with just a hint of sarcasm.  But get her big moment!  “Stop!” she tells her retainer.  “I wish to make an entrance,” she commands and gets up to do it on her own.  Decades of experience went into that line and the entrance, all done flawlessly.  “There are 47 Romanovs alive in Europe at this time.  The issue we must face is, are there 48?  We must speak about this Anastasia woman,” she commands with an iron whisper, but Cyril is determined to shoot holes in the memory.  No one remembers the Duke of Hesse’s visit, and he himself has denied it, though she can chalk that up to his “political ambitions.”  The scene, which is really between Olivia de Havilland and Rex Harrison, two old pros, crackles with perfection.  Goldman’s writing is thorough and efficient, and the arguments and counterarguments are the summation of the whole movie, delivered without the woman’s presence.  It’s all about politics.

Obviously it’s too premature for Maria Fedorovna to see Anna, but she can keep sending the minions, and a train load of them arrives to make their judgments.  Princess Olga has brought all of the closest family servants with her at the thrilling conclusion of the miniseries’ first portion.  She recognizes them all: Sasha, her governess, her tutor, Dr. Markov’s children, including Serge (Nicholas Surovy) and the others.  “It’s not a question of your recognizing them.  It’s whether they know you,” Aunt Olga says.  Serge insists it’s Anastasia, but the older retainers deny her.  “There has been only one resurrection,” she is told, and when Sasha denies her, it’s over.  Prince Erich knows they are all playing politics and exposes the naysayers for their politics (as well as the cheerleaders, who have them too).  “The Empress needs proof,” Aunt Olga says.  “What we know is that we shall never know,” she says as final judgement.  “I hope you suffer.  I hope you all suffer,” Anna rails as she runs from the train.  “You won’t ever see the Empress now,” Prince Erich admits, and Anna knows it’s true.  “We have each other, that’s enough,” Erich says.

But is it?  That route to her grandmother may be closed, but all is not lost.  Serge jumps off the train.  A newspaper reporter now, Serge “knows a story,” for sure, and follows Anna to Erich’s summer cottage, claiming “I wouldn’t hurt her for the world” to Erich. 

Before Serge comes back into things, there is a rather useless scene where Erich proposes to Anna (after giving her a tiara).  We know they don’t get married because Anna did not marry until years later, and it was to an American.  It’s her reasons for saying no that are important.  As much of a fortune hunter as Erich may be, Anna is obsessed with proving who she is, and will not let anything, not even love or marriage, stand in her way.

Serge wants to take Anna to America, for “publicity.”  They all feel that if Anna dazzles the American public, it will “put pressure on the family.”  That’s a rather dubious outcome, considering how titled Europe felt about Americans, but Anna doesn’t know that.  She’s a meal ticket for many now.  But, where better to put on a grand show than in America, loaded with money and success after the world war, unlike Europe, and dying for royalty in any form.  Erich doesn’t want to be a part of it and will not go. 

She goes anyway, and the adoration starts on the crossing, where the ship’s captain lets her man the wheel as she tells stories about being on her father’s yacht.  “You are a real-life fairy tale,” Serge tells her, as telegrams pour into the ship.  “After tomorrow, no more privacy.  What you will be is a celebrity!” he says, much to her bewilderment, but his own satisfaction.  America in the 1920s created more phony celebrities than even 80 or 90 years later.  The history books are filled with people and their 15 minutes even before Andy Warhol coined the phrase.  And boy did America love royalty! 

A mob scene is there to watch Anna disembark, with bands and flowers, the whole deal.  Serge’s paper, particularly its editor Harvey Coward (Shane Rimmer) have made sure Anna is a sensation wherever she goes, with constant press coverage.  She catches on very quickly, giving a royal wave to the crowd at the hotel, where they are flying the Imperial Russian flag.  Serge is in it only for the money (his paper is paying for everything), but he knows how to lay it on thick to keep Anna interested.  He produces a sketch of Anastasia he did years ago (we saw it in an earlier scene). 

Anna is showered in furs, jewels and clothing, on loan, giving her a dizzying sense of self.  Swathed in only the best and most luxurious, fit for a princess, Anna is taken to meet New York’s Russian emigres, including Darya, a Romanov cousin (Susan Lucci) married to an American.  Darya insists she’s Anastasia from across the room.  “You can’t imagine what it means to us, having you here.  It means so much,” she says, speaking for the whole community, desperate to believe, and all looking for some glamour.  And they get it.  In a scene reminiscent of the first in the movie, Anna is paraded into a room, announced by her formal title, where rows and rows of elegantly-dressed White Russians bow to her properly and kiss her hand.  A single tear runs down Anna’s cheek as she walks the line, but one can’t help but wonder just what it’s for.  Is she now so enamored of the idea of being Anastasia, that she revels in the pomp, or is she a tad ashamed?  And the crowd doesn’t really care if she is Anastasia or not; they want a return to glory, American style, which means faux-European style.  Dig the reaction of Princess Troubestskaya (Betty Marsden), whose over the top hand-kissing and insistence that Anastasia has the Tsarina’s eyes cause even Darya to gag a bit. 

“I feel as though you’ve changed my whole life,” Anna tells Darya.  “Not yet, but I will!  How can the Empress not embrace you?  But she will, you’ll see,” a confident Darya insists. 

Erich, upset at the publicity machine and the changes he feels just from Anna’s telegrams, heads off to see the Dowager Empress, who is ill in bed.  “Do you think I care what anyone in America thinks?  At my age, I don’t much care what anyone thinks,” she huffs, but she is reading the articles.  “She’s a pretty thing, I’ll give you that.  I take it you’re in love with her?  What’s that to me?  Is that supposed to sway my feelings?” she asks.  Maria wants to believe Anna is Anastasia, but she has to maintain the demeanor of one who doesn’t believe, because believing is too politically charged.  After giving a speech about being on the throne herself, she asks, “what does she look like, this love of yours,” careful to phrase it as such, but the veneer slips a bit when she asks, “does she resemble me at all?”  When she realizes she may be revealing too much, she sends Erich off and confides to her daughter she is considering receiving Anna, “just to see the look on Cyril’s face,” though it’s obvious she truly wants to believe her granddaughter is still alive. 

They will never meet as the Dowager Empress dies.  Anna and Darya get the news while enjoying themselves at a lunch, watching young girls dance.  Darya has just confessed to having married her husband because “I had the title and he had the money.  Be careful who you envy, Anna, and be careful what you throw away,” she wisely tells Anna.  She reminds Anna of all that comes with the title, mainly the money, telling her not to put it in front of love.  Whatever chance Anna had of being recognized is now officially dead along with the Empress. 

Serge has instructed Darya not to tell Anna of the Empress’ death, but Anna stops by a store selling Russian artifacts and recognizes items from her past.  When the shopkeeper recognizes her, he shows her everything he has, including a Faberge egg that was a gift from the Empress (in fact, the gift would have gone the other way, as her husband started the tradition of giving her the eggs and her son kept it up as long as he could).  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” the man says after mentioning the Empress.  “Don’t!” Darya jumps in, but Anna knows something is wrong and Darya has to tell her the truth right there.  Initially calm, Anna sees a doll and goes into full hysterics over the entire situation.  The script doesn’t show it, but Anna knows, even if not fully, that it’s over.

Darya is more certain.  “He’s the only one that counts,” she tells Serge, who has started to believe the hoopla he created.  “Damn.  Damn!  Why did the Empress have to die?” he asks.  He knows it’s over too.  Cyril gathers the family in mourning and officially denounces Anna, “this creature living in New York.”  The European Romanovs are commanded to go along with Cyril’s denial.  He growls at the press and even threatens to sue her if she continues her quest.  “We will not tolerate this folly any longer,” he barks and stalks off, followed by the family.

In New York, the emigre community gathers at a church to pay their respects to the Dowager Empress.  The same people who clasped Anna to their bosoms are shocked to see her at the church.  Darya senses their anger and tells Anna, “I should never have let you come.”  “Look at her, dressed in black, as if she ever knew the Empress.  I actually kissed her hand.  The little witch made fools of us,” Princess Troubetskaya clucks so Anna can hear.  No, Princess, you made fools of yourselves, believing only what you were told and now doing it again, just in reverse.  The Princess gets even nastier, and Anna argues.  Darya tries to tell her, “they don’t matter,” but when even the priest ignores her, Anna gets hysterical on the church steps and makes the scene worse.  “They never believed in me, not any of them!” she yells.  “It’s not as if the whole world is against you,” Darya tells her.  Anna decides there to take Cyril to court, using his words against him.  “You can’t defy the family,” Darya recommends.  “No, just watch me,” Anna decides and strides off. 

The paper re-assigns Serge to another story because the family denial has deflated the story?  “Who should you believe?  Our articles or every living Romanov?” his boss muses.  “She’s a dead horse, she’s not going anywhere.”  Not only are the stories over, but the bill paying is also ending.  “When a stock stops making money, you unload it,” he tells Serge, making him lower the boom.  When he gives Anna the news, he also admits he doesn’t believe she’s Anastasia.  “Who in God’s name do you think I am?”  “I have no idea,” he confesses before she slaps him.  “You’re worse than Cyril, he’s a monster, but he doesn’t hide it,” before answering the door for the men who have come to collect the luxury items on loan.  Even Darya turns her back on Anna.  Cyril has “ordered” her to turn Anna way.  “We must follow him as if he were the Tsar,” she reminds Anna.  “If I were to stand up to Cyril, I would be in disgrace and I would risk losing Billy wouldn’t I?  There are more titles in this world than millionaires and I can’t risk losing what I have…for anything, not even you” she confesses honestly.  “Can you forgive me?” Darya asks.  Oh, no!  Anna isn’t that much of a doormat. 

Alone and homeless, Anna has a cup of coffee in a diner, rips up the picture of young Anastasia and Prince Erich comes in to rescue her.  Okay, it’s a dopey touch, I’ll admit it.  “You came for me?”  “I should have done it long ago.  I’m not good without you and you are clearly a disaster without me,” he tells her.  Erich, the one we expected to be the biggest grabber of all, is her true love, Anna’s true love.  They even get a bedroom scene. 

The next morning, Erich tells Anna of his conversation with the Empress and he thinks she should sue Cyril.  They hire a no-nonsense lawyer, Kurt Vermehren (Jerome Willis).  He asks her why she wants to bother.  “So when the stonemasons go to carve my tombstone, they’ll have a name to put on there,” she replies.  She wants to no money and she knows the case may drag on for years, with Cyril holding her “up to public ridicule.”  Still, she insists on the suit.  “Every history book in print tells us you’re dead,” he reminds her.  “I’ve found no evidence that supports your claim.”  Plus, Anna and Erich have no money, whereas Cyril has unlimited resources.  Kurt insists on dental tests, ear tests, psychiatric tests, all of it.  Against all odds, and all of Kurt’s scare tactics, Anna vows to fight.  “I don’t propose to lose this case, but at this point, I don’t have one,” he says, convinced to help her when she said she only wanted her name. 

Anna undergoes hypnosis where the doctor takes her back to the night of the killing and she either gives a great performance or actually writhes in pain remembering it.  Ultimately, Anna and Cyril are in the same room as their lawyers argue.  “When I’m done with you Madam, you’ll have nothing, you’ll be torn to ribbons,” the cranky patriarch scowls. 

There was no final proof that Anna was or was not Anastasia and after decades of wrangling, Anna moved to the United States as the sort of kookie old lady in the style of Grey Gardens. 

Did Anna believe what she was saying?  Did she want to be head of a dynasty (which did not allow female heads except under extreme circumstances.

The story of Anna is certainly captivating, but told many times.  What makes it work so well here is, first, James Goldman’s script.  He looks at this from all angles.  The condescension of Grand Duke Cyril is natural, but the reactions of Darya and various other people who knew Anastasia is layered with everything but the truth.  Everyone here has an angle, even, perhaps, Anna herself.  Goldman goes to great lengths to show us Anna only when she believes everything she is saying, but by doubting the story just enough through other, more mercenary characters, it’s impossible not to wonder if she’s not just giving a performance.

Of course, the actors are next in line.  Amy Irving, always a terrific actress, gives a remarkable performance.  Too old to play Anna, she nevertheless shatters all of that.  She has the regal air of a princess when she needs it, but underneath lurks a broken peasant.  Her performance adds to the mystery.  Olivia de Havilland cannot possibly equal what Helen Hayes did in “Anastasia,” but Hayes had the advantage of a scene with her granddaughter, not at all historically accurate, that de Havilland does not have the chance to play.  That’s okay, she has plenty to do and really does turn in a fascinating performance, her second-to-last as of this writing, and her best of the late-career roles she took (only Aunt Bessie in “The Woman He Loved” was left after this one).  Rex Harrison is appropriately nasty, and Jan Niklas is both romantic and a bit shady.  Even Susan Lucci gets caught up in the fun and has a grand time playing a vivacious Russian emigre. 

This story just refuses to die because it’s so juicy.  Anna got so far in her quest to prove she was Anastasia and if she ultimately failed, one would believe that it was a fickle public and politics that doomed her, rather than the truth.  In this version, the truth hardly matters.  In the 20th Century, the world saw the end to nearly every royal dynasty (the Windsors had position, but no power and the royalty of places like The Netherlands and Monte Carlo in Europe escaped with decorum, but not much else) and their prestige was replaced by the concept of celebrity.  One didn’t need a title to be a celebrity, but in this story, it sure as hell was a good impetus.  That’s really the heft behind the story here, good old Jazz Age hucksterism.

Categories: Historical Miniseries

Leave a Comment or Question