After an Opening Scroll briefly explains the Russian Revolution and the rumored survival of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the movie opens in Paris during The Roaring '20s. Exiled White Army general Sergei Bounine (Brynner) is looking for a woman he can pass off as the lost Anastasia. He thinks he's found just the woman in Anna Koreff (Bergman), an amnesic waif who has spent years wandering from madhouse to madhouse, finally ending up in Paris after a long journey which apparently began somewhere in Eastern Europe. Anna at first refuses to participate in Sergei's scheme, but she agrees to go along with it when she's reminded that she has nowhere else to go. Sergei teaches Anna to be ladylike before taking her to meet the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna Romanova (Hayes) in Copenhagen. But what if Anna and Sergei have accidentally fallen in love along the way?
The movie marked Ingrid Bergman's Hollywood comeback after she had been virtually blacklisted for her adulterous affair with Roberto Rossellini. She won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Anna. Anastasia was also nominated for the score by Alfred Newman, but it lost to Victor Young's score for Around the World in 80 Days. In 1997, the movie was very loosely remade by Don Bluth as the animated musical fantasy Anastasia.
This film, along with all of the other works based on tales of Anastasia Romanov's survival, became Dated History when discoveries of the Romanov remains in 1991 and 2007 proved conclusively that Anastasia died along with her family in Yekaterinburg in 1918.
This film provides examples of:
- Amnesiac Hero: Anna
- Disposable Fiancé: Prince Paul von Haraldberg. He was Anastasia's fiancé before her supposed death and now he's back to romance her. Guess who the big loser is in the Paul-Anna-Sergei Love Triangle.
- Goshdang It To Heck: "I don't give a hang about the money." This from a hardened cynical conman. Oh, Hays Code.
- Hammer and Sickle Removed for Your Protection: Not quite as brazenly as in the 1997 animated version, but nevertheless the movie steers pretty clear of the politics of the Russian Revolution.
- Napoleon Delusion: Unlike in the 1997 version, Anna is told from the start that she's involved in a con. When she starts to think that she might actually be Anastasia, Sergei thinks it's this trope.
- Pygmalion Plot: Sergei takes a suicidal amnesiac and either reawakens her to the truth of her birthright, or molds her into the image of the Duchess Anastasia. He falls for his creation.
- Quest for Identity: Anna wants to find out who she is, whether that person is Anastasia or not.
- Really Royalty Reveal: Subverted. Throughout the movie, it's strongly hinted that Anna is really Anastasia, but we never find out for sure. Anna does seem to come to believe it herself and she does convince the Dowager Empress.
- Riddle for the Ages: Is Anna really Anastasia?
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Again, not as bad as the 1997 animated version, but that's a very low bar. The best that can be said is that the Russian Revolution occurs off-screen in apparently the same way as it happened in real life, Anna is never confirmed for sure to be Anastasia although the movie obviously wants us to think that she is, the Dowager Empress Marie is accurately portrayed as living in Copenhagen rather than Paris, and there is no undead Rasputin involved in the story. Even so, the movie plays fast and loose with the life of Anna Anderson, which it is clearly based on (the movie's Anna even uses the name "Anna Anderson" as an alias at one point). In real life, Anna Anderson never met, let alone won over, the Dowager Empress Marie. And apart from them, basically everyone else in the film, including General Sergei Bounine and Prince Paul von Haraldberg, are entirely fictional characters.