My current Top 5

My current Top 5

7/07/2010

Best Actress 1971: Janet Suzman in "Nicholas and Alexandra"

Janet Suzman surely got a royal treatment for her first appearance on the big screen – she played the part of Empress Alexandra, wife of Czar Nicholas, in the opulent and lush Nicholas and Alexandra, the over three hours long story of the last Russian Czar who, together with his family, faced a gruesome death after the Russian revolution.

Big, prestigious pictures like Nicholas and Alexandra are usually very popular with the Academy and so it’s no surprise that it received a nomination for Best Picture. Along for the ride was Janet Suzman whose previous nominations during the award season were limited to the category of ‘Promising newcomer’, a polite way to say ‘Come back when you paid your dues’. But her nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards is surely no surprise when one considers that, beneath all the royal gowns and queenly attitude, is a character the Academy loves: a supportive wife and suffering mother.

Times change, revolutions come and go, wars are declared and defeats accepted – but the character of Alexandra changes surprisingly little during all these events as the health of her family and, for a certain period of time, the support of her dubious friend Rasputin are the most important aspects of her life.

Because the screenplay so rarely lets Alexandra have her own moments to express a more layered side, Janet Suzman took things in her own hands and used the small moments of the movie to show that Alexandra is both Empress and woman. Whenever her husband seems to mistrust his own instincts or lets others influence his decisions, Alexandra tells him ‘You are the Czar’ in the most natural voice that is never threatening or appalled but simply declares a God-given fact. With this, Janet Suzman tells the whole, never-mentioned backstory of Alexandra and shows that she is a woman who has always been in a royal position, who believes in a God that made her husband Czar and her the Empress, who believes that she is part of a superior class. Neither of this is done in an unlikable or arrogant way but simply with a total conviction. This is the only life that Alexandra knows and her upbringings never let her believe or suspect anything else. This way, Janet Suzman wisely and intelligently explored a side that nobody else in connection to the movie seemed to have been interested in. Even though the story is called Nicholas and Alexandra, the Empress seems to be the rather forgotten character. Nicholas, wonderfully played by Michael Jayston, is the character who undergoes so many changes, who has believes that become doubts, who literally has to carry the weight of his country on his shoulders. For large sections of the movie, Alexandra is gone from the story and whenever she appears again, it’s mostly in connection to her children or Rasputin. But while it’s easy and legitimate to criticize Janet Suzman’s impact on the story, there is no need to complain about what she does with the little material she is given.

The biggest worry in Alexandra’s life is the health of her only son who suffers from hemophilia – an illness that he inherited from his mother. This guilt, that Alexandra is always carrying with her, and the fear for the life of her son, are the biggest motivations of Alexandra’s actions and thoughts. Janet Suzman is quite moving in her scenes of fear and worries and shows the human behind the royal protocol, a woman who is a loving mother while never forgetting that she is also an Empress and, as such, must keep her dignity and composure. In a moment that perfectly balances these aspects, the Czar and his wife return from a party, both aware that their son is ill – they walk into their palace, trying to hide their feelings until the doors are closed behind them and they suddenly rush up the stairs in their son’s room. Most impressive are Janet Suzman’s acting choices whenever the sickness of her son is affecting her in public. When she gets the news that he is ill while she is sending soldiers off to war, her face is like a masque that has suppressed every personal feeling since she was a child – but the fear and panic are quite visible in her eyes. Again, Janet Suzman doesn’t draw any attention to the behaviors of an Empress but shows it as the most normal thing. But still, Janet Suzman never shows what makes Alexandra think and act. Is she really blind to the changing world outside the palace? In some ways, Alexandra is the one steady factor in this story, a rock of undying principles but her intentions are never fully explored. In Janet Suzman’s performance, Alexandra never seems lightheaded but the acting and the actions of the character drift too far apart sometimes.

Besides playing a fearful mother and supportive wife, the biggest task of the story for Janet Suzman is to make the strange relationship between Alexandra and the grim Rasputin believable. And it’s again thanks to her understated and intelligent performance that Alexandra never appears dumb or gullible in her beliefs that Rasputin possesses a magic power. She simply shows a woman who is reaching everywhere to find safety for her son and becomes more and more fascinated by this seductive man. Unfortunately, both Janet Suzman and the script wasted an opportunity here to explore a darker side of this relationship.

Janet Suzman’s chemistry with Michael Jayston remains rather predictable and uninteresting for most of the plot. They show a loving and devoted couple while keeping up the façade of the royal protocol but their scenes together are never as captivating as the movie makers think they are. For Nicholas and Alexandra, there are good times and there are bad times. It’s mostly the good times that suffer from lifeless acting and writing but when the tragedy begins to show, their chemistry improves. Unforgettable is the moment when Nicholas comes home from the war to find a new Russia and a royal family under arrest – his pleadings for forgiveness and breakdown while his wife can’t do anything but cry and break down, too, is a wonderful moment and shows that Alexandra too, is suffering from the change in the country – more than has been visible so far. The images of a frightened Empress, walking through her palace, looking out of the window if her guards are still there to protect her, didn’t really allow Janet Suzman to explore these feelings.

When the movie goes on and the situation becomes more and more dangerous for the royal family until they are imprisoned, Janet Suzman gets to display an expected variety of fear and suffering but, just as she did before, her character stays mostly in the background while it is again her husband who contributes the most moving and memorable moments of the story. It’s sometimes frustrating to watch Janet Suzman slide elegantly, but hardly noticeable through the tragedy of the story as it feels as if she didn’t even try to show a greater impact. But she again finds a small moment to create a lasting image – when a young man tells her that she should be happy that she is still alive after she complained that she isn’t allowed to take all her things with her, Janet Suzman shows a look on Alexandra’s face that demonstrates how her whole world and beliefs are falling apart as she has to accept this talk and, most of all, feels the truth and danger behind it. On the other hand, her final moments with her husband, their last night together, surely shows an unexpected tenderness between two people who, even in private, aren’t used to show their feelings, but the moment is too short and Janet Suzman again overshadowed by her co-star.

Janet Suzman maybe doesn’t do anything wrong in her part but there is the constant feeling that she simply could have done more. It’s certainly not a compliment when the best scenes of the movie are those that don’t involve her. She’s an Empress? Check! She’s a mother? Check! She’s a wife? Check! But while Janet Suzman gets to show the royal façade and the woman behind who keeps the royal façade up even in her private life, it all comes together rather lifeless and uninteresting. She suffers nobly and expresses poise and grace, but the tasks of the script simply don’t challenge her as much as most of the other actors. She is the center of attention during the more lifeless parts of the story and constantly slips in the background during the captivating parts. A competent performance that achieves what it wants to achieve but doesn’t go beyond that. For this, Janet Suzman gets

6 comments:

Sage Slowdive said...

The movie surprised me more then anything else...it seemed more modern and fast paced then most epics.

Fritz said...

Really? I thought it was rather boring and predictable. But the tension during the last few minutes was almost unbearable even though the ending was clear.

dinasztie said...

Haven't seen this one. It might be worth checking out. I have a feeling that Julie Christie might be your pick for this year, but Glenda seems more probable. Who's the next one?

Fritz said...

Well, who knows... :-)
I think I will do Vanessa next. Get the Queens done! :-)

Tom said...

I started watching this movie, but I never finished it.

Fritz said...

I think it's worth to see once. Especially for the last 30 minutes.