Pace this film’s subtitle, there never was much of a mystery. Anna Anderson, a Polish refugee who passed herself off as the only surviving daughter of the last Czar, had neither the Romanov looks nor a plausible story to sell herself as the real Anya; she didn’t even speak Russian. (Why no one bothered to give her a test in comprehension is the only true mystery in here.)* But this relatively lavish tv mini-series (it runs a little over three hours and runs out of steam long before the end) at least holds a passel of fine perfs from some starry acting vets (Olivia De Havilland in her next to last role as the Dowager Empress; Rex Harrison bowing out sharply as the presumptive Romanov head); plus a fine debut from Christian Bale as the young, death-obsessed Alexei. Edward Fox mumbles impressively as a kindly doctor, Claire Bloom is both desperate & resigned as the doomed Czarina & UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS mavens get a chance to see Rachel (Lady Bellamy) Gurney. The leads are just okay, Amy Irving enunciating in Mid-Atlantic mode & Jan Niklas as her main supporter doing a sort of junior-league Dirk Bogarde impression. And note that Susan Lucci looks only slightly older in 1986 than she does today! (No mystery there, either.) No, the interest lies in just how resilient this silly story is. Not even the truth can kill it, a real life case of ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,’ as John Ford’s THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE/’62 famously put it. (Few bother to note that this is precisely what Ford refuses to do.) A decade later, when the old myth had been scientifically demolished, a full-rigged animated version turned up. Maybe those Bolshies should have used silver bullets.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The recently released THE IMPOSTER shows yet one more case where grief-stricken relatives ignore all available evidence so they can believe a loved one is still alive.
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: Anatole Litvak’s fondly recalled 1956 ANASTASIA may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but the parallels between Anya trying to reclaim her name & title and Ingrid Bergman successfully reclaiming Hollywood stardom after her Italian exile proved irresistible. That version, taken from a French play, also finesses any story arc problems by having a bunch of swindlers start to believe their phony Anya might just be the real thing.
CONTEST: Distinguished elder actresses love playing the Dowager Empress: a grand, delayed entrance, two nice scenes played from a seated position, and special appearance billing for twelve minutes of work. Yum! Helen Hayes, Angela Lansbury, Lynn Fontanne & Olivia De Havilland have all taken the plunge onscreen, but only one of them ever co-starred with another legendary actresses who played that part not on screen, but on the stage. Name the mystery actress, the title of the production where she played the Empress Dowager, which of the four listed above was her co-star, and the vehicle the two vets acted together in (it was on tv) to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of any NetFlix DVD.