Poisoned, shot and dumped in the frozen Neva River back in 1916 before he’d die, mad monk Grigori Rasputin has returned in a ripping account of the Siberian peasant whose influence on the czarina helped bring down imperial Russia. Peter Pruce’s dynamic teleplay, disregarding Rasputin’s political angles, sticks to the mystic route, and it works. Director Uli Edel, turning the script into a mesmerizing biopic, delivers top dramatic fare.
With hemophiliac Prince Alexei (Freddie Findlay) narrating the events, the eye-filling story begins with the boy Rasputin (convincingly eerie Tamas Toth) playing psychic out on the steppes. Twenty years later, he reports he received word from the Holy Virgin telling him to come to St. Petersburg to help the secretly stricken Alexei, who mysteriously repairs after Rasputin’s visit.
The story’s familiar. Czar Nicholas (Ian McKellen) tentatively accepts Rasputin (Alan Rickman in a stunning perf), while Czarina Alexandra (Greta Scacchi) buys him all the way — until her final, stinging denial of him. Scripter Pruce sets up the czar and czarina as totally sympathetic innocents, kind, thoughtful victims of a system bound on destroying them; it may stretch truth, but it boils down to impressive TV drama.
Rickman’s electric Rasputin seizes attention with the actor’s magnetism and dramatic know-how. Rasputin’s personal excesses are ticked off — in a dance club, his drunken behavior shocks patrons — but Pruce charitably credits the monk with sacred intentions. Rickman’s eyes glow in close-ups, the actor’s energetic physicality pumps up the debauchee with sustained vitality. Admirably, scenes of him in bed with women, noble or otherwise, are handled with restraint. Under director Edel’s tight command, Rasputin’s crudities illustrate his decadence and disdain of authority; his difficult death, staged with commendable imagination, only perpetuates a legend.
McKellen makes soft, troubled Nicholas acceptable; Scacchi gives Alexandra a becoming strength. A charming romantic passage between the two has a delightful tenderness and urgency to it. Young Findlay’s Alexei is first-rate, and James Frain, as chief assassin Prince Yusoupov, acts with authority.
As for the royal family, they’re again brought to the infamous cellar and led to believe they’re sitting for a portrait — until the guns appear. There’s dramatic purpose to the often re-enacted action: The narrating boy Alexei’s the last to die — off camera — and a note at the end of the film mentions that the DNA report of the family’s bones doesn’t include his body. Maybe someone, proclaiming himself an aged Alexei, will claim the crown; he won’t be the first to represent himself as a member of the Romanov royals.
One of Edel and cameraman Elemer Ragalyi’s remarkably subtle touches is an occasional silent-film look; combined with Natasha Landau’s smashing costumes and Miljen Kljakovic (Kreka)’s production designs, the technique hands the telefilm a stunning and rich sense of era.
Historically, of course, the vidpic’s a hoot. Nothing’s mentioned of Rasputin’s unscrupulous reactionary appointees in governmental, business and clerical circles who supported him and made hay out of their high posts vacated by fired loyalists. Rasputin’s personal influence on the czarina once the czar left for the front was strong enough to undermine the government (he’s seen dictating a letter to Alexandra to be sent to the czar); court attendees and the people juggled rumors that he and the Hessian-born czarina were working on the German side.
Film, shot over eight weeks in tough weather and finished in December, used the czar’s village, Tsarvoe; a restored Peterhof Palace on the Baltic; St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Yusoupov Palace, where Rasputin died. His body’s tossed into the frozen Neva River from the real Petrovsky Bridge, site of the deed.
Pruce, Edel and Ragalyi tell the story with gusto. Tech credits are superb, and the producers have done something few American filmmakers have heretofore done — waded into the Revolutionary period up to their necks without losing sight of the story and its principals; more, they’ve seized this high-flown tale by the throat.