Tom Baker’s Rasputin

One of my earliest memories is of Tom Baker’s first appearance as Doctor Who when I was three, which may be why he seemed so perfectly suited to the role — for me, he defined it. As a result, there’s always been the need for a little mental adjustment whenever I see him in anything else, and I find myself thinking of how much this other character he’s playing is like his version of the Doctor. (Of course, Tom Baker is one of those actors who excels in a part precisely to the degree he’s allowed to play the one character he does so well — I’d say himself, only I don’t know the man, so can’t tell whether it is himself or, as is more likely, some fantasy version that’s only allowed to be let loose as part of a performance.) It’s odd to think that his gaining the role of the Doctor was a bit of a departure from the direction his career seemed to have been heading, considering the two major film parts he had before it — Koura in The Golden Voyage of Sindbad, and Rasputin in Nicholas and Alexandra — were both villainous types, something his smouldering glare seemed perfectly fit for. As the Doctor, he occasionally played up this darker side — the side that made up the whole, really, of his sorcerer Koura in The Golden Voyage, a role that was only hampered by Baker not being able to incorporate his other, more humorous side, which was the other essential element he brought to the Doctor.

This may be one reason why, although I hadn’t seem him in 1971’s Nicholas and Alexandra — till last night, that is — I thought Rasputin would be a perfect part for him, encapsulating, as it does, that almost bipolar mix of brooding gloominess and sudden impulsive generosity that characterised his Doctor. Rasputin is (in the film, at least) a peculiar combination of visionary religious fervour and an all-too-human weakness for that old trio of wine, women, and political influence. The character has the potential to become a sort of Falstaff, endlessly and engagingly self-justifying his faults while at the same time promoting a heroicised, fantasy version of himself. Rasputin knows he is a sinner, but also knows God loves sinners, because he made so many of them into saints. This is certainly how a Tom Baker Rasputin could have been, if only he’d had the film to himself. As it is, Nicholas and Alexandra is, of course, mostly about Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, and although Rasputin plays an important part in their story, it’s their far more sober, not to say somber, restrained character that presides. Baker’s Rasputin is a bit like a Dostoyevskian madman straitjacketed into a more urbane Tolstoyan world — and as a result, he never quite manages to take off. If he were allowed to, he’d certainly swallow up the whole film. (Though there are an awful lot of excellent British character actors in the other parts, so this isn’t to detract from them; it’s just that they are mostly playing more well-bred types.) As it is, he’s allowed plenty of opportunities to glare his bulbous eyes hypnotically at whoever he’s talking to — this glaring-from-under-the-brows look was no doubt the thing that landed him the role, as the director makes sure to include one shot of it in each scene where Baker appears — but doesn’t really get a chance to do anything other than smoulder. The burning vitality beneath the glare only comes close to being unleashed in Rasputin’s final scene, where we get a rather muted moment of decadence, a roar of defiance, then a drawn-out death.

Baker was nominated for two Golden Globe awards for his role in Nicholas and Alexandra (one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and another for Best Newcomer, according to Wikipedia, though Baker’s own site says he was only nominated for one), but to me the film seemed to be straining at the bounds of its genre — it was a late version of the big historical epics of the 50s and 60s, and was perhaps a little too polite for what the actor was really capable of.

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