Monday, 22 February 2010

Leningrad (2007)

A choppy, maddening, occasionally compelling feature culled from a Russian-made mini-series, featuring Hollywood actors Mira Sorvino and Gabriel Byrne, Leningrad has pretences to panoramic portrayal of one of the Great Patriotic War’s darkest chapters. But what’s left is mostly the immediate personal story of Lisa Davis (Sorvino), a British journalist, and the anglicised daughter of a former White Russian general, who wrangles an assignment to Moscow during World War 2.

Lisa finds herself trapped in the title city when she goes there with other reporters, including her American correspondent boyfriend, Phillip Parker (Byrne), to report first-hand on the Nazi siege as it tightens the noose around the city, only to be left for dead after a bombing raid. She is found and protected by an unlikely ally, Nina Tsvetkova (Olga Sutulova), an overzealous policewoman, introduced in the film’s opening scenes threatening to shoot her own side’s soldiers in her efforts to live up to decrees against retreat, in the midst of bloodcurdling combat.

When the Soviet authorities catch wind of Lisa’s parentage, they suspect she’s not merely a victim of circumstance but in fact a British Intelligence plant, and begin combing the city for her. Nina secures for Lisa the falsified papers of an exiled Spanish Republican, allowing her to hide from the NKVD and claim rations. She is drawn into the hardscrabble life Nina and the people she shares an apartment block with, including an opera star, her maid Sonya Krasko (Alyona Stebunova), and Sonya’s two children, Sima (Janna Nesterenko) and Yuri (Vadim Loginov), a chess prodigy wasting away more swiftly than her sibling because he mother is giving more food to the girl on the bet she’s the more likely to survive. Lisa comes to be care for the two children and she risks incurring Nina’s wrath in stealing some of the singer’s jewels to buy food for them. Finally, Nina volunteers for the outrageously dangerous expedition of trailblazers for the Road of Life across Lake Ladoga, in order to secure passage for all her “family” out of the city.

Leningrad is initially intriguing for offering a distinctly Russian perspective on the events whilst also willing to embrace other viewpoints, and for its focus on women in war and the exigencies of survival for civilians, the stringent difficulties of retaining humane conscience and responsibility in a grinding, utterly inhuman situation. Especially in its later scenes, played for agonising suspense, in which Lisa is too exhausted by hunger to carry her young charges out of their apartment, Leningrad does achieve an achingly physical sense of such dire straits. Lisa faces the crushing choice of either leaving one of the youngsters to die or to return herself and risk her own life. Lacing this and leavening it slightly is the sisterly affection between Nina and Lisa, the former, under her hard-bitten shell, eager to learn of Lisa’s sensual Western style and easier variety of liberated femininity, and the latter, in returning to her roots, finding a sense of mission in trying to keep the two Krasko children alive. Unfortunately, interesting themes of female solidarity and the agonies of Soviet Russia's schizoid efforts to both repel and yet court the West's aid remain undeveloped.

Sorvino is not convincing as a period Englishwoman, and Byrne has very little to do, and doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing in the film. Sutulova, on the other hand, drives the piece with her excellent work as Nina, an angry, indomitable tomboy. Nina chases down her mother’s murderers, a pair of thieves, with steely determination, and throws herself into dangerous situations again and again purely because she can’t keep away from the action, and yet is a compassionate soul. Scattered throughout are some eye-catching vignettes, like the PA broadcaster who dies at his post, the hungry butchers who start hacking meat of a still-living horse, and, later, corpses of their fellow citizens, and the time-delay bomb that blows a crowd of desperate, gullible folk to pieces. But these scenes are mere shrapnel amidst a near-incoherent explosion of ill-focused elements.

The curtailed Leningrad rockets along with little care for grace of narrative, incision of character, or clarity of story, and the whole thing retains an air of plastic, bestseller hype. Writer-director Aleksandr Buravsky tries too hard to shake up the stately tradition of the WW2 flick with an almost Michael Bay-esque technique, with rampant, often bewildering edits, so that what’s going on often threatens to become opaque. The story half-heartedly employs thriller and action-movie elements, as if to distract from the truly compelling and yet severely depressing tale at hand, and fails to explore a deeply tragic and desolate time and place, totally missing the sense of apocalyptic ruin that, say, Elim Klimov managed in his mighty Come and See (1985) or Joseph Vilsmaier with Stalingrad (1992), and even what Richard Attenborough conjured at the end of A Bridge Too Far (1977). Glimpses of the slide of the city’s citizens into the worst pits of depravity remain are played as horror movie stuff not actually concerning our pretty heroines, and the final twists to the tale lack force because Kate’s emotional adoption of the kids feels is stated rather than truly realised, rendering her decision to venture back into hell and face certain death unconvincing.

Although a tremendous amount of care and cash seems to have been expended on evoking the milieu of the ruined city and the spectacle of war, it’s hard to tell what’s been left on the editing room floor and how much this might have improved the confused film, which, as it stands, is littered with plot holes, like why Kate, obsessed with her Russian heritage, can’t speak a word of the language, which seems mostly a device to allow the proceedings to go on in an exportable language. As it is, most of the efforts to portray a broader scope of the event are purely tokenistic, like an exploration of the German side, with a young officer (Alexander Beyer) becoming disenchanted with the cold equations pronounced by his General uncle (a wasted Armin Mueller-Stahl) and through him the whole pretence to German superiority, an aspect far too briefly and clumsily employed. Even without editing, however, Buravsky’s script probably still lacked sophistication, sporting awkward English dialogue and mostly flat and provisional supporting characterisations. Because of all these faults, Leningrad significantly fails to live up to whatever potential it had.


dave_or_did said...

Here, here. I wrote quite a scathing review of this myself and I've had a few people arguing trying to claim it's brilliant. In my opinion, the film had potential in terms of subject matter and visuals, but is ruined by a clunky script and really poor performances.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, Dave. Yes, generally agreed, although as stated I did like Sutulova's performance. I'm a sucker for serious war movies, but this wasn't Grade A. I did enjoy its intensity as an immediate viewing experience, but almost nothing that stayed in my head afterwards was particularly favourable.

Julio Romero said...

Sutulova ROCKS!!!

Roderick Heath said...

That's what I like...enthusiasm.