Film Review: Rasputin – Dark Servant of Destiny (1996)

Many were hit hard by Alan Rickman‘s death this past January, and it’s easy to understand why. Immortalized by the Harry Potter franchise for his role as anti-hero Severus Snape, Rickman loomed large over a generation of moviegoers. The resonance of this role is so powerful that it’s occasionally difficult to remember the varied nature of Rickman’s career outside of J.K. Rowling’s world. That is why the now apparently unavailable TV-film, Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny, is so important. Not only does it remind audiences of Rickman’s startling range, but it also showcases the actor in a rare leading role. Rasputin is, essentially, an opportunity to see Rickman at his most pronounced. The effect of this is fantastic, dark and wonderful, even if the film itself is rather slight.

Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny doesn’t spend much time on exposition, barely skimming the surface of its titular hero’s early years. Born in the later half of the 19th century, Rasputin is shown going nowhere fast for the first half of his life. He is considered by all in his small, Siberian community to be an odd duck, and the mystical air he exudes is treated with fascination, derision and violence. One day, while plowing a field and looking generally miserable, he is confronted by a brigade of horse riders. After he delivers a hilarious retort to their boorish bullying, he is beaten senseless into the hard, Siberian tundra. This provokes an ambiguous vision of the Virgin Mary, and eventually prompts him to become a well-known priest and healer.

This conversion also leads him into the orbit of Nicholas II, the last Tsar to rule Russia prior to the 1917 Revolution. Played by the great Ian McKellen, Nicholas is a burdened man, facing adversity on all sides. Revolution is in the air, for one thing. On a smaller, more personal scale, Nicholas young son Alexi has become bedridden due to complications from Hemophilia B, which has rendered his legs useless and deeply threatened his health. Nicholas’s wife (the German-born Alexandra, played by Greta Scacchi) is at her wit’s end and decides to call upon the assistance of Rasputin, whose notoriety has by now reached St. Petersburg. His arrival brings both hope and despair to the royal family. While he briefly restores the vitality of the young prince, he also sets off a number of scandals. Rasputin’s existence in the aristocratic milieu begins to exacerbate preexisting tensions and volatility, arguably even accelerating the country’s descent into the oblivion of WWI and revolution.

Directed by the German-born Uli Edel (who recently slummed it up by helming Nick Cage’s latest DTV effort), Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny is a lushly rendered bit of historical drama. From the cavernous Budapest and St. Petersburg settings, to the Emmy-nominated costumes and cinematography, Rasputin succeeds in being a transporting piece of non-fiction – at least on a superficial level. The primary actors also give fully committed performances. Greta Scacchi – who also won an Emmy for her work in the film – brings the doomed Alexandra to life, easily evoking a woman both fascinated and repelled by Rickman’s mad monk. Ian Mckellen is also quite good as the entirely inept Nicholas, portraying a stilted man whose arrogance and incompetence spells disaster for all around him.

Despite the strength of its aesthetics and acting, Edel’s film feels slight, airy and abridged, conveying little of the complexity behind the period. It does suggest some of the larger events percolating outside of what we see on-screen, such as employing stock footage of WWI. However, viewers gain little insight into the web of socio-economic and political factors that eventually precipitated revolution. It mostly hangs the era’s tumult on vague descriptions of revolutionary activities (cryptic bombings are mentioned), or references it through the open-ended queries of Prince Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (Freddie Finlay), who periodically chimes in with unnecessary voice-over narration. One positive is that Brad Fiedel’s mournful, gloomy score imbues the film with a palpably dark mood, complimenting the subject matter’s evocations of dread.

Of course, none of this is really the point. While adding this historical weight would have made Rasputin: Dark Servant of Destiny into a larger and richer film, this particular story is far more interested in being a character study. Through this focus, the film parses how effectively managing power is a task often deeply incompatible with human nature.

Conceptually, this is synthesized through Rickman’s performance, which dominates the proceedings. The actor gets the look and feel of one of history’s greatest “horn dogs” perfectly, projecting a scuzzy, hairy and disheveled persona (although I personally was hoping for a longer beard). He also channels Rasputin’s allegedly immense magnetism. To do so, Rickman’s turns himself into a figure of kinetic passion, a boozy, mysterious and all-together powerful force that is difficult to watch and from which it’s impossible to turn away. While the film never entirely fleshes out his motivations, Rickman provides Rasputin with a dizzying array of dimensions. He makes equal time for the different masks the man wore, including the rigid ideologue, the petulant child and the insatiable libertine. His work drives the film forward, filling it with an energy and an allure that probably wouldn’t be there without him.

His performance is, essentially, a treat, and one that has an enhanced gravity now that he is no longer here. It’s a poignant thing to watch deceased actors do great work after they have prematurely passed away. It also reminds us of how neat cinema is, and how it allows you to continue engaging with great performers through the work they leave behind.

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