Directed and written by an Irishman, Johnny O’Reilly, this Russian language film originally appeared in 2014. The accompanying publicity tells us that the director, who has lived in Russia for 12 years, has delivered `a provocative statement on Putin’s Russia.’
It may well be the fault of this reviewer, but he has failed to see any such statement or indeed provocation in the movie under review. O’Reilly had what looks like a decent budget, given that there are some fine city-scapes of Moscow, its teeming streets, its imposing Stalin-era architecture, hard by the river Neva. One recalls also, late in the film, a particularly striking overhead, panning shot of a tranquil lake, nestling underneath tall, drab apartment buildings, which are palely bathed in a weak Northern light.
But a film needs more than such rich poetic moments of camerawork, and if he can find a more nuanced, novelistic screen-play, O’Reilly could make a great film next time around.
What we have here is a popular TV actor who is kidnapped at gunpoint by a bunch of young thugs. The alcoholic actor has two women in his life, Natasha, his wife and Marina his girl-friend, who fret about him and his precarious health. In fact, he is kidnapped from the canteen of the hospital from which he has done a runner.
Then there are the feckless pair of step-sisters who fight endlessly in their parents’ apartment and end up in a sordid situation with two of the aforementioned youths on a day of festival and fireworks, Moscow City Day. Another parallel story is that of the (apparently) senile and mute elderly grandmother who is signed into a decidedly grotty-looking care home, where she will have little or no privacy. The pathos and attendant guilt of all this is dramatised rather well, it must be said.
We meet also the perpetually tense businessman (played by Alexey Serebriakov, star of Leviathan) who has been out-manoeuvred by wilier parties in a business deal. He is estranged from his wife with whom he has a son, while his much younger girl-friend is trying to make it as a singer (he has the clout to get her a prestigious gig.) Meanwhile, her jilted lover, a young man more her age, is trying to get back with her.
Thus it proceeds, dutifully enacted slices of life that do not have the leavening agent that would elevate them into compelling drama. A film that is trying to encompass a diversity of human stories needs that curious alchemy of wit and sudden gravity, of serendipity, of light and shade, the feeling that something of real moment or surprise is soon to occur.
There is no faulting the actors, and, as said, the cinematography, and indeed the music score are also very fine. However, what writer and director Johnny O’Reilly needs to do for his next film is find a decent 19th century or 20th century Russian tale. There are plenty of really strong examples which have great drama built into them. Update one that appeals to the present day and make a cracker. Forget too about making statements about anything, Putin’s Russia or otherwise. Just tell it slant.