Anastasia manages that fine line between being dramatic and a constant delight. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is magnificent, with Arthur Laurents’s screenplay–and Litvak’s direction of her–never quite letting the viewer in. It’s a mystery after all–is Bergman’s Anastasia really the last Romanov. Laurents and Litvak construct a narrative where that question doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as why the viewer would ask it in the first place.
Of course, they can only sell that approach thanks to Helen Hayes, who plays Bergman’s potential grandmother. And Hayes only works as well as she does because she’s got Bergman and Yul Brynner to play off. Hayes is wonderful in the film. Let me check the adjectives–Bergman’s magnificent, Hayes’s wonderful–should Brynner be breathtaking? No. But only because he’s not. Except when Martita Hunt’s around to lust after him in one of the film’s finest subplots.
Brynner’s commanding, sympathetic, antagonistic. He’s the closest thing the viewer has to an ally in the film, if not an analogue. Initially, it’s Brynner who can prove, to the viewer, Bergman’s character’s authenticity. Then it’s Hayes. Then it’s Bergman. But, like I said earlier, the authenticity of identity isn’t the point of Anastasia. The characters are the point, the actors, the experiences, Litvak’s awesome direction.
Anastasia is a stage adaptation; it has a number of the telltale signs–distinctive supporting characters, a limited number of indoor locations where scenes take place–but Litvak breaks them over and over. He and photographer Jack Hildyard have this fantastic crane shots (sometimes “breaking” ceilings). They, and the CinemaScope frame, make Anastasia larger than life, right from the start. Because Litvak’s style for the film isn’t melodrama. It’s practically noir, with Brynner and (fantastic) sidekicks Akim Tamiroff and Sacha Pitoëff as these schemers planning a con. And Bergman’s able to fit into it and out of it. Her performance is, like I said, magnificent. Especially considering how well she weathers being out of the present action for two weeks. The film turns it into an unexpected boon for the final act. Laurents and Litvak. They do great work here.
Alfred Newman’s score is also important. It’s this overtly Russian stuff, which doesn’t always fit the scene exactly right. Newman emphasizes the Russian influences over the scene’s “needs;” it’s perfect. Because Anastasia is about Russia, while still being very much about Bergman (as a movie star).
I haven’t seen the film in years and, from the first scene, I remembered how much I love it. Just gets better on every viewing.
Directed by Anatole Litvak; screenplay by Arthur Laurents, based on a story by Guy Bolton and a play by Marcelle Maurette; director of photography, Jack Hildyard; edited by Bert Bates; music by Alfred Newman; produced by Buddy Adler; released by 20th Century Fox.
Starring Ingrid Bergman (Anna Koreff), Yul Brynner (Bounine), Akim Tamiroff (Boris Adreivich Chernov), Sacha Pitoëff (Piotr Ivanovich Petrovin), Martita Hunt (Baroness Livenbaum), Ivan Desny (Prince Paul) and Helen Hayes (The Dowager Empress).