Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
After years of being one of the most popular and sought-after actresses in the world, Ingrid Bergman was in a difficult place when she was approached to star in Anatole Litvak’s film Anastasia (1956). A series of personal and professional setbacks had, for all intents and purposes, driven her to exile. First was the critical failure of Joan of Ark (1948), a film that had been delayed for years, long enough to make Bergman too old for the titular role; further, many critics felt she had turned in a mediocre performance. Her next film was the dismal Under Capricorn (1949), a box office bomb that was frequently described as “glum” and “talky.”
To add to her cinematic setbacks was a scandalous affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini in 1949. Bergman and Rossellini were both married at the time — to others, of course — and when their affair resulted in a child, the American public was mortified. In time-honored tradition, the media lost their collective minds; Bergman was even denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Senator Edwin C. Johnson, who pronounced her “a powerful influence for evil.”
With music, dancing, drama, history, splash and romance, Anastasia was meant to be the full entertainment package. . .
After Rossellini and Bergman divorced their respective spouses and married each other, Bergman remained in Italy for a few years, making films exclusively with her director husband. According to her biographer Donald Spoto, it was her first film without Rossellini, the delightful Elena and Her Men (1956), directed by Jean Renoir, that finally got American studios interested in her again. There was some lingering resentment over the scandal of a few years prior — a local censor in Memphis vowed to never let another Bergman film be shown in that town again. Anastasia was not only shown in the United States, but it became a huge hit.
Anastasia is the fictional story of Anna Anderson (Bergman), the most famous of all the women who claimed to have been the long-lost Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia. In reality, the 17-year-old Anastasia was murdered along with her father, Tsar Nicholas II, and the rest of her immediate family after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In the days prior to DNA testing and with the bodies of the family buried in an unknown location, there had been a persistent rumor that one of the duchesses, probably Anastasia, had escaped the execution. Anderson, a frequent patient of various mental asylums, became something of a media sensation in the 1920s after her claims of being the missing Anastasia were revealed.
Bergman gives a fine performance that is both passionate and compelling. . .
The film takes quite a few liberties with Anderson’s story. Anna in the film is approached in the 1930s by a former Russian general Sergei Bounine (Yul Brenner) who heads a small group determined to find an impostor to pass off as Anastasia, knowing there is a large inheritance to be had. Anna is confused, emotionally unstable and full of memories she cannot reconcile. As her training for the role of Anastasia progresses, she remembers things that only a member of the royal family could, and many, including Anna herself, begin to wonder if she really is the lost duchess. A tenuous attraction between Anna and Sergei develops, complicated by her relationship with Anastasia’s former love.
Anastasia is a lavish affair, but hardly original. The film, like the 1954 Broadway play it was based on, essentially overlays a fictitious version of the life of Anna Anderson atop the plot of Pygmalion. That it was derivative was scarcely the point, however, as the film was a big Technicolor-CinemaScope spectacle, with gorgeous location shots, opulent sets and astonishing costumes. With music, dancing, drama, history, splash and romance, Anastasia was meant to be the full entertainment package, but in its quest to be all things to all viewers, the film frequently reaches beyond itself and gets in its own way. The moment the humanity and drama of the film begins to take over, an odd musical interlude or a fade-away to an overstuffed set appears, lest anyone get too emotionally involved in the film.
Though it had only been seven years since she had last appeared on American screens, when Bergman is first seen in Anastasia, she looks as though she has aged two decades. It’s mostly special effects for the character of Anna Anderson, of course, but Bergman was widely considered to have been one of the most beautiful women to ever appear on film; it’s hard not to take her decidedly de-glamorized appearance as a Hollywood version of penance for her supposed moral failings.
In fact, the entire character of Anna, from her emotional frailty to her questionable past, seemed tailor made for Bergman’s American comeback. Bergman gives a fine performance that is both passionate and compelling, and as a result, she was greeted warmly by an American public that seemed determined to make up for the last seven years. Critics were delighted by Bergman’s performance, too, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times declaring her performance “superb” and “beautifully molded,” adding that she deserved the Academy Award. The Academy apparently agreed, and Bergman’s career was back on track. Though the film today is mostly known as the movie that brought Bergman back to the Hollywood screen, Anastasia is entertaining and gorgeous to watch, and one of the more important films of Ingrid Bergman’s career.
Ingrid Bergman's Academy Award-winning performance in Anastasia may only be known today as the film that resurrected her career, but it is still entertaining and lavish, with a compelling performance by Bergman and one of the more important films of her career.