So there I was, opening night of the most controversial film of the year. I paid my 370 rubles for a ticket to see the much anticipated Matilda: secret of the Romanov house. As I walked in, I noticed two police officers; not the norm for any Russian cinema, and they were also there when I left. It turns out nobody wanted a scene caused so it was just a precaution.
As the theatre filled up, I noticed something about the audience. Only two couples, many people were there alone. Two in the front row were especially loud throughout, often giggling and unable to believe their eyes. Yet, no protesters or hard line Orthodox Christian groups boycotting the event .
What the non-Russian readers should understand is that in 2000, the last Tsar and his family were cannonised as Saints by the Orthodox Church. As such, to many in Russia, Nikolai is therefore untouchable and void of criticism.
This film about the last Tsar’s affair with a Polish ballet dancer upset many of the country’s Christian elite, notably, Duma MP Natalia Poklonskaya of Crimea, keen to protect his martyrdom status. But, when the film had ended it was hard for me to see what could have been so offensive. There were two soft sex scenes, a selection of historical inaccuracies and the exaggerated nature of this affair (and muddled storyline) was quite evident. This is hardly enough to make any reasonable person’s blood boil, however.
The timing of this film is important, though. This is the centenary of the Russian revolution, which saw he and his family murdered by the Bolsheviks. This segment of Russia’s history is a rather uncomfortable one because it is associated with negative memories and connotations. Chaos, Civil War and a party seizing power without popular support.
The film begins with what kids these days refer to as a ‘nipple slip’, as Kschesinskaya’s dress (intentionally) comes undone during a show at the Marinskiy Theatre, St. Petersburg, where the royal family is present. This would be the start of the love affair.
In the next scene, Nikolai is found writing to his beloved Alex (Alexandra his future wife) whilst his father, Aleksandr III makes clear his dislike for her. Then, to make the story more connected to reality, the audience is treated to the famous train crash where Aleksandr saves his family by lifting up the roof of the train carriage on his shoulders. This was not the last time we viewed recreations of historical events, as we also witnessed the Tsar’s coronation and the incident at Khodinskoe Pole, to name but two.
A common theme throughout is Nikolai’s parents, I suppose, distaste for Alexandra and disapproval of his love life in general. It is in the historical record that neither was ever that keen on the German princess. In fact, one scene in particular shows the difficult relationship Alexandra had with Nicolas’ mother whilst she is having an outfit properly fitted.
Coupled with this is Nikolai’s journey to the throne, which is an important part of the film’s plot. In the backdrop, an ailing Aleksandr passes and Nikolai is being groomed to take over. However, he makes it very clear that he is not ready and does not want to become ruler of all the Russia’s. In that sense, one might argue that his affair with Kschesinskaya was a much-needed distraction for him.
When not with Nikolai, Kschesinskaya spends the duration of the film preparing for a show in Moscow at the Bolshoi, and has a particularly hard time of it. Her affair with the Tsarevich and fellow ballerina’s affair put her extremely out of favour with the powers that be. There are many attempts to keep her away from the Tsarevich and his fiancé, who actively plots to make Kschesinskaya disappear. However, she made it to the show and on stage, much to the displeasure all but Nikolai.
The film’s ending also raises questions. The message is that Nikolai chose the throne over love, something not at all supported in the historical documents. In fact, Alex and Nicky (as they called each other) were besotted with each other until their last days. Their letters and diary entries show much love, affection and devotion to one another. Nikolai, for all of his political faults, was a good family man and is how many in Russia would prefer him to be remembered.
Be that as it may, Kschesinskaya finds her way into the church where the coronation is taking place. She runs up to the balcony with the choir, locks the door to halt those pursuing her and yells out ‘Nicky!’ The soon to be Tsar faints, and goes into a daze. When he comes around, Nikolai stands up and places the crown on his head. The affair is over.
Certainly, Matilda is a must watch, yet, it is hardly Oscar nomination worthy. The costumes and sets are definitely praise worthy, but it is not, as Shaun Walker of The Guardian wrote https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/25/arrests-moscow-russia-premiere-matilda-film-tsar-nicholas-ii-affair , a standard costume drama. Then again, his depiction of Russia to Guardian readers is hardly accurate to begin with.
The film got me wondering how a British audience might react to a film about a beloved British monarch’s love affair. While Christian groups would likely not set cars on fire or demand it be banned, one can be sure that some would find it distasteful, especially in the current political climate and if it were a high profile film.
Matilda showed a great deal of maturity in modern Russia. The authorities refused to ban the movie (rightly so) and civil society were keen to see it. The muddled picture and historical inaccuracies aside, the film has shown Russians are capable of handling controversial material and accepting its leadership are only human. To paraphrase Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy, Russia followed the law and not people’s personal preferences.
It is encouraging to see so many Russians attending the film and critiquing it. Over the weekend, Matilda raked in $3.9 million across Russia. As we left the cinema, the reaction from most in the audience was along the lines of ‘meh’. It was good and we got our money’s worth but it was also nothing special and could have been much better.