Guys, the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia — murdered along with her family in the Russian Revolution — was pivotal in my pre-teen years. PIVOTAL. I can’t remember if I saw the TV miniseries Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna (1986) first, or read the book that it’s based on (The Riddle of Anna Anderson by Peter Kurth), but either way, I consumed them both over and over, hoping fervently that Anna Anderson WAS Anastasia. Because, who doesn’t love a good princess mystery?
I actually rewatched part 1 of this miniseries a year or two ago and got distracted before watching part 2, but have waited to have the time to rewatch the whole thing before reviewing it, because I wanted to do it justice. And I’m so glad I did! What happened to high quality shlock like this? Come on, Hollywood. Bring back your made-for-TV, soapy, historical movies that actually have good budgets (and surprisingly great costumes), good acting, but also men with historically accurate yet unattractive mustaches and who say things like “I’ve wanted you for so long, but I had to let you come to me,” and supporting actors like Susan Lucci. SUCH GOOD SHLOCK.
Anastasia: The Backstory
Ok, so if you’re unfamiliar: during the Russian Revolution, after abdicating the throne, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, and their five children were first sent to Siberia in order to keep them from counter-revolutionary forces. Then, all seven members of the family were executed in 1918. They were taken down to a basement, told to line up and wait, then guards came in and shot them all. The girls didn’t die right away because they had hidden so much jewelry in their corsets, so the guards had to bayonet them. The bodies were dismembered, burned with acid, and then thrown down a well at another location and not recovered until 1991 (with two final bodies found in 2007).
After the revolution, there would then be multiple people who turned up claiming to be various members of the family who had magically survived, especially youngest daughter Anastasia.
However, DNA testing done in 2009 proves that all the bodies of the Romanov family were indeed found in the mass grave, and therefore confirmed that all the members of the royal family died in 1918.
Anna Anderson: The Backstory
Anna Anderson turned up in Berlin in the early 1920s claiming to be Anastasia, and she was the best-known of the Romanov family pretenders. She entered into a legal battle with the remaining members of the family to prove her identity, but after a 40+ year trial, the court ruled it was inconclusive. She lived between Germany and the U.S., married an eccentric doctor in Charlottesville, VA, settled there late in life, and died in 1984.
A 1927 private investigator working on behalf of the Romanov family identified Anna as Franziska Schanzkowska, a Polish factory worker with a history of mental illness … and in 2009, DNA testing proved that to be true.
Anastasia: The TV Miniseries
Of course, back in 1986, none of this DNA stuff existed, so the miniseries takes the romantic and entertaining position that Anna WAS Anastasia. Amy Irving plays Anna, and she’s sympathetic and convincing, and Irving’s performance is really quite moving.
Olivia de Havilland plays the Dowager Empress Maria, Anastasia’s grandmother, and she’s quite regal but also crotchety in the best possible way. She won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Emmy for this, by the way.
A very young Christian Bale, in his first ever role, plays Tsarevich Alexei:
And Rex Harrison as Evil Uncle Cyril, determined to keep Anna out of the family so he can be the head of the family/next tsar in the case of a counter-revolution!
On the other hand, you get:
A made-up romance with “Prince Erich,” who has a historically accurate but oh-so-cheesy pencil mustache and is constantly cheering Anna along.
SUSAN LUCCI as “Darya” (Princess Xenia Georgievna)!
OMAR SHARIF as Tsar Nicholas II!
And a fabulous mishmash of accents! A Russian bolshevik guard has an American accent; Omar Sharif does his Egyptian accent; Susan Lucci is 100% American despite her character being originally Russian; and half the cast goes British, and the other half go American, irrespective of where they’re supposed to be from.
Side note, I’m always mentally nitpicking languages in movies like this. The actors are speaking English, of course, but theoretically they’re “really” speaking various other languages.
Anna refuses to speak Russian; half the movie is set in Germany, so then is she speaking German? And with a Russian accent? She can’t remember how to read and has to relearn … but wouldn’t she have originally learned to read in Russian? So then is she relearning how to read in Russian? Or German? Then she’s off to America and has no problem talking to everyone there, so I guess she’s fluent in English? I swear, I keep a running tally of this stuff while I’m watching things.
Costumes in Anastasia
The costumes were designed by Jane Robinson, who also designed Jennie: Lady Randolph Churchill (1974), Brideshead Revisited (1981), and A Handful of Dust (1988) — and she won a well deserved Emmy for her work. Because shockingly, guys, the costumes in this are fabulous!
According to a Washington Post article (“Realistic Costumes and a Question of Royalty, Dec. 7, 1986), Irving had over 40 costume changes. The filmmakers wanted things to look realistic; Robinson said, “A designer can only be creative to a point when dealing with history and historic events. The styles of those times are well-documented, and we wanted a look of reality.” The article goes on to talk about how Robinson used mostly white and pastels for Anna’s wardrobe because as she said, she “wanted the colors to have a slightly dreamy quality to capture the feeling that this lost young woman is not always sure of her identity.”
About half of the first episode focuses on the experience of the royal family from the beginning of the revolution until their execution, and those costumes are very nicely done. The other half and all of episode 2, are set in the 1920s. Okay, so the 1920s aren’t my area of expertise, so I can’t tell you if they got a hemline length wrong or whatever. But the costumes are beautiful and look totally appropriate to the 1920s, and actually, are my platonic ideal of what 1920s should be (daywear, anyway) with all the sheer white and ivory dresses.
Are you an Anastasia fan too?
I am an Anastasia fan, but I really prefer the Ingrid Bergman, Yul Brynner, Helen Hayes 1957 movie. Ms Bergman won an Oscar, costumes were marvellous and it was based on Anna Anderson’s Anastasia autobiography, I Am Anastasia.
And I can’t wait for Matilda the biopic on Mathilde Kschessinkaya & Nicky to come out. Costumes are simply marvellous.
I just recognized Jan Niklas as “Prince Erich” – he played the younger Peter the Great in the mini-series with Maximillian Schell! Small world and what fun to see this hunky prince again!
How could I not know about this miniseries??!! I’ve long been obsessed with the last Romanov family and their tragic ending. I can’t count how many books I’ve read on the subject. Thanks for bringing this film to my attention.
Yay! It’s on Amazon Video…
I picked Alexandra as my confirmation name after reading “Nicholas and Alexandra” as a thirteen year old. Unfortunately, my family refused to call me Alex, as I wished.
I loved this mini series as a teenager and it sent me off down the rabbit hole of Russian history.
I can still remember clearly the scene where Anna tells Cyril about a conversation overheard between Cyril and the Tsar about Cyril’s affair with a ballerina.
Me too! the Romanovs are absolutely fascinating. The fact that Empress Elizabeth (Peter the Great’s daughter) isn’t more a historical household name is a crying shame.
I remember loving this miniseries when it was on. I was so confused why everyone did not believe Anna that she was the lost princess. In fact this mini series is one of the reasons I have an unnatural loathing of Rex Harrison, well that and his involvement in Carol Landis suicide.
I do remember this mini-series, albeit vaguely. I had already started my love affair with English history (that started at 11) and this helped widen my scope by quite a lot. Ahhhh memories…
Coincidentally, I was listening to the soundtrack of the Anastasia musical while reading this. It’s interesting to see how screenwriters adapted Anderson’s story to make it more interesting for the viewing public, like giving her a love interest. The costumes in this are very pretty to look at, with some nice 20s silhouettes. That is some major 80s hair on Nicholas’s daughters, though!
A really good recent book on Anderson is The Resurrection of the Romanovs by Greg King and Penny Wilson.
It’s the 80s hair that gets me, but of course as drop waisted cotton heirloom work frocks and permed, dull hair were en vogue in 1986, it’s pretty much a moment of serendipity!
The Romanov girls would have been fluent in French (spoken by the aristocracy in preference to Russian) and English (because English nannies were in fashion). They would have been educated in those languages as much as Russian. Royalty in those times were very multi-lingual.
I remember watching this many years ago after seeing “Nicholas and Alexandra” and despite the cheesiness and the accents mismash, there was a lot of good acting here. Amy Irving was superb as Anastasia/Anna Anderson, she does convey well a woman who is very unsure of who she is and how she copes with struggling to find her own identity. I would recommend Robert Massie’s The Romanovs: The Final Chapter which gives an excellent account of the life of Anna Anderson and the first round of DNA testing that did prove beyond reasonable doubt that Anna Anderson was not Anastasia.
And as for the life of the Grand Duchess Anastasia I would recommend Helen Rappaport’s Four Sisters (The Romanov Sisters in the US) for the life and times of Anastasia and her sisters.