Other than the basic premise of the movie – that Yul Brynner is trying to pass Ingrid Bergman off as the missing Princess Anastasia of Russian – I knew very little about Anastasia before I watched it. I was expecting a tragedy. There didn’t seem to me to be any way to end such a venture happily, whether she was the real princess or not. But what I saw instead was a movie that has to be understood as a fairy tale (it doesn’t even pretend to be historical), with strong echos of Shaw’s Pygmalion and Cinderella.
The movie unfolds in 1928 in Paris and Copenhagen, where many exiles from the Russian Revolution of 1917 now live. One of them is General Bounine (Yul Brynner) who is in partnership with two men, Chernov (Akim Tamiroff) and Petrovin (Sacha Pitoeff), to capitalize on the rumors that one of the Russian royal family escaped being murdered by the Bolsheviks. They organized a fund, with money donated by certain Russian exiles to locate the missing princess Anastasia, but use the money for their own ends until it becomes necessary to find someone to present as Anastasia or else go to prison for fraud.
They find a young woman, Anna Koreff (Ingrid Bergman), of unknown background who has amnesia and spent time in an asylum where she told the nun that she was Anastasia. She is vague about her true identity, but has certain features in common with the real Anastasia and seems to know things most people wouldn’t know. Bounine has eight days to prepare her to be the princess – information she should know, how to walk, how to dance – and then present her to all the exiled Russians in Paris. They are divided, however, on whether she is the princess and Bounine realizes that if he is ever to have Anna accepted as Anastasia, they must have the acknowledgement of the real Anastasia’s grandmother, Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna (Helen Hayes), who now lives in Copenhagen.
Plot Spoilers to Follow – I was enchanted by this movie, though somewhat surprised at the turn it took (I initially thought the fact that she was coughing meant she was dying of tuberculosis…possibly the result of listening to “La Boheme” too often). It’s more sentimental than I expected. I was expecting a psychological exploration of identity (where I got that idea, I have no idea), but that’s not what the movie is about. Is she Anastasia or isn’t she? Anna is desperate to know who she really is and where she belongs and she certainly comes to believe that she is the real princess. She seemingly convinces The Dowager Empress that she is her granddaughter. She even has Bounine wondering. But ultimately, the movie seems to say, it’s not important if she is Anastasia or not. Identity, instead, comes from being loved and accepted.
In fact, once she is accepted by the Dowager Empress, she has doubts. Does Prince Paul von Haraldberg (Ivan Desny) love her or like or her just want the inheritance that will come to Princess Anastasia? Are all these people simply using her so they too can participate in the money or glory in the memory of what is long past? Are people too eager to believe she is the princess, whether it is true or not? Anna is not sure. The only people who seem to care for her genuinely are the Dowager Empress and Bounine.
Helen Hayes gives a wonderful performance as the Dowager Empress. Grown weary of pretenders presenting themselves to her as her long lost granddaughter or grandson, she initially refuses to see Anna. There is a wonderful confrontation scene when she and Anna finally do meet. She is cold, but there is vulnerability beneath it. You know she wants to hope, but has grown cynical of disappointment. Anna is desperate for acceptance and it is unclear whether the Dowager Empress is convinced or simply has such a need to love someone again and recognizes a fellow sufferer, lonely and lost,, and opens her heart to her. In essence, she chooses to believe that she is her granddaughter.
Because whether she is the princess or not, Anna clearly has had a traumatic and violent background, causing confusion, mental anguish and a distrust of people. General Bounine’s motivations are more opaque. He’s a con artist, but he doesn’t really seem to care about the money. He’s like a gambler who likes to control and stage scenes and move people as pawns. The Dowager Empress mentions that he was denied a title before the Revolution. Is he simply showing his power over the royal family that snubbed him? But without ever saying so, it is clear that his views of Anna change over time and he begins to feel protective towards her and care for her, wondering if what he tried to make her into was really the best thing for her.
The film shares many aspects with George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” Like Professor Higgins, General Bounine seeks to mold Anna into the image he envisions, in this case as the princess. There is the same master and pupil dynamics, with the same fireworks as he finds that she is not just a puppet, such as when he considers it safer for her not to speak to the exiles who have come to see her and she ignores him and proceeds to act and speak as she chooses. There is also the same freedom Eliza achieves from Higgins, as Anna achieves independence from Bounine when the Dowager Empress acknowledges her and takes her into her home and Anna begins to run her own life. And like the 1938 film Pygmalion, there is the same unspoken romance that evolves subtly without anyone ever mentioning the word.
The film is also a Cinderella story, just as “Pygmalion” was. A woman is plucked from the banks of the Seine and turned into a princess. But unlike Cinderella, she doesn’t quite go to the ball. She chooses, instead, to give it all up for the certainty of being loved as she is. “The play is over,” as the Dowager Empress says. What she means is that in choosing to run away with Bounine, Anna is relinquishing the part of what has become a play, unreality, an act so other people can live in the past. Now she can live in the present where former identity does not matter.
Anastasia was the next movie Yul Byrnner made after his tremendous success and Oscar winning performance in The King and I and he is likewise compelling here. He’s still intense and charismatic, but more restrained and he and Bergman have a lovely, unspoken chemistry, similar to the unspoken one in The King and I. Anastasia also marked the return of Ingrid Bergman after her affair and marriage to Roberto Rossellini led to so much scandal and condemnation that she lived for years in Italy only to return to Hollywood in 1956. She won an Oscar for her performance, partly as a welcome back, though she does give a very moving one.
The movie is based on a play, which has led a number of people to comment that the film is too stagy. I confess, though, I’ve always had a weakness for movie adaptations of plays and I rather like talky films. Anastasia is not static, though it does largely occur in extended scenes in large rooms. I like the intensity created when people are engaged in earnest interaction on a set. The movie has also been accused of being melodramatic, which is true, but I must confess again that I have a weakness for certain kinds of melodrama. Some emotions should not be expressed tepidly.