Red Joan (2018) Film Review

Red Joan is a 2018 British spy drama film, directed by Trevor Nunn, from a screenplay by Lindsay Shapero. The film stars Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Nina Sosanya, Tereza Srbova and Judi Dench.

Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney, inspired by the life of Melita Norwood. Norwood worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association as a secretary and supplied the Soviet Union with nuclear secrets. The materials that Norwood betrayed to the USSR hastened the pace at which the Soviets developed nuclear bomb technology.

Cookson performs the young version of Joan Stanley studying physics at Cambridge. She became involved with Communists and radical politics through her friend Sonya (Tereza Srbova) and Leo (Tom Hughes), a German Jew. Her story, which reaches as far back as 1938, is recalled in flashbacks as Joan in old age, performed by Dench, is questioned by the Special Branch. The questioning reveals that Joan was not actively supporting communism, but was more concerned about “levelling the playing field” to maintain peace in the postwar world.

Most of the film takes place during the Second World War in the offices and research facilities of the atomic researchers. There are scenes in cafes and private rooms alongside a few different interiors but ultimately it plays out like a chamber drama dealing with Joan‘s affair with Max, Leo‘s temptation, chatting with Sonya and only really picks up the pace once Joan is aware of what happened at Hiroshima which leads her to begin committing espionage. This occurs in the third act more or less meaning most of the film is bland melodrama and reiterating how sexist the era was time and time again to labour the point.

These sections are framed by current day events where Joan is taken by Special Branch on behalf of MI5 for questioning. She is put under house arrest with an ankle bracelet and eventually ends up making a press statement, in her front garden. She declares she isn’t a traitor but wanted everyone on equal footing. She wanted everyone to share the same knowledge as it was the only way to avert the horror of another world war. She concludes that she believes if they look back in history they’ll see she was right. A female journalist shouts she should be ashamed to which Nick declares she has no reason to be ashamed and that he would be acting as her legal representative.

The film was inspired by the story of Melita Norwood who, in her 80s, was unmasked as a KGB spy. She was accused of providing British atom bomb research to the Soviet Union in the mid 1940s. She admitted her guilt at a press conference held in her suburban garden. Sue to her age the British Government decided not to prosecute. Known as the ‘Granny Spy’ she died at the age of 93.

The film closes with this text on screen.

Character Based Review

Immediately you see, with even a little knowledge of the real life story it’s based on, how they’ve ‘upgraded’ the central character from a secretarial role into a more proactive scientific contributor when we are informed early on she was selected for her intellect (though her beauty is also noted). As a first class Cambridge science graduate she gets recruited (later insinuated to be via Leo‘s influence) into the secretive research towards atomic energy by the British Government even offhandedly mentioning something the male scientists overlooked thus earning the respect, and adoration, of Max the research lead. She has to keep this all relatively secret but due to connections from her student days, when she spent time with Communist sympathisers, she begins to be influenced into leaking information.

To be honest this in reality might, in the best case scenario, have barred her from even being considered for selection to work on such sensitive information from the very start so there are a lot of conveniences for this heightened fictionalised account to even take place already. More than likely she would be detained indefinitely (however in the film she blackmails a college friend, William, for some tickets to Australia to wait until the heat is off it seems to be implied before returning to Britain in her old age). In the worse case scenario she wouldn’t even be given a trial of any sort and be killed on sight once she commits her betrayal.

She says she doesn’t want the research used as a weapon and remains faithful to her country (yet induced unfaithfulness in the professor who has fallen in love with her and who she sleeps with until later he declares he is getting a divorce to be with her). This goes as far as working with Canadian/American scientists at one point until Hiroshima occurs. This is not so much a shock as an inevitability considering what the research, even on, is being discusses as capable of. She never had the option to stop this and yet then takes questionable actions by arming a foreign power – and it would be hard to argue her leaking of the self same research that enabled the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the latter not acknowledged bizarrely) by arming a foreign nation to induce a nuclear stand off.

There is a lot of talk of ‘you don’t understand how it was back then‘ in scenes with her son and yet we, an audience generations removed and knowing the consequences of such spy work, know of the Cold War paranoia induced by the arms race which is arguably still evident today with Trident and other deterrents. The film asks us not to judge her by that same argumentative logic with which she tries to silence her son – namely that, as much as he couldn’t understand war time mentalities, she couldn’t be assured that the research she leaked would lead to a stalemate, as she hoped, and not immediate utilisation of nuclear arms on non-Soviet territories.

In fact we don’t know how the war affected her personally besides what she tells her son. We only ever see or hear of her experiences in university and the research facilities. Even her time in Australia is at best paid lip service. Did she have relatives who went to fight in World War II? Relatives who were caught in the bombings? It’s as if she was an orphan with no connection to others besides her university friends. I only realised that afterwards and it strikes me as bizarre. Is the film, amongst it’s myriad of options to be interpreted, also suggesting everything we saw was a streamlined fabrication in the manner of Keyser Söze in ‘The Usual Suspects’? Honestly I’m over-reading into this film because it is so unfocused if you look at it on anything but the surface level.

Anti-war sentiments, though occurring before and after the second world war, felt like a very modern in their sensibility and portrayal here. The film tries, unsuccessfully, to stress in it’s ending that her actions were vindicated by history yet it ignores the Cold War era apparently. Often in the framing device, set in modern times, she reiterates her view that, regarding Stalin, they didn’t know about his actions at the time and stresses the relativism of other such values. The film wants her both to be seen as a victim of sexism in the era and yet striking out at that self same society in an act of morally questionable autonomy. She didn’t want atomic research to be used as a weapon so, having seen it’s utilisation as such, she opts to provide research to the Soviet Union which clearly must be understood by her as potentially arming them with weapons too.

Ultimately she was naïve and so for all the film reiterating her intelligence she proved to have little autonomy in her life. What little actions that were her own proved to enforce the archaic attitudes of the men that she was not to be trusted with ‘serious business’. It’s oddly sexist without irony how they portray her. It doesn’t truly comment on the era’s sexism so much as pay lip service to it then double down on it’s own belittling of her.

The bombing of Hiroshima single-handedly acts as the tipping point when she begins to leak information to Soviet spies. Initially via Leo, who often appears professing his love for her, and Sonya who has a child and acts as a friend of sorts.

The film tries to balance you sympathising with her struggling for respect in a man’s world, for example when a Canadian scientist keeps on about how she is going to be impressed by a tumble dryer they have, but also shows the slow progression of her sympathies towards aiding foreign powers. Therefore willingly choosing to be blind to the greater picture of world events playing out in the background (which are barely acknowledged in the film to the point you see no sign of home front efforts towards the cause even) thus endorsing those sexist values that she can’t be trusted.

There is a foreign scientist working with the Canadian scientists who is later revealed as a spy and she emulates this exact behaviour but the film seems to believe you will sympathise on no greater basis than that she is British and a woman, who we see old and frail in the framing device, when being coldly interviewed by MI5 representatives. Kierl, the scientist spy, and all foreigners are on some level to be dismissed, as they do him initially, or mildly suspicious. It’s a film very rooted in an archaic attitude and it doesn’t seem all that intentional as much as part and parcel or British dramas of a certain type for some reason when concerning middle class academics and such.

The film seems unable to settle on a single perspective of how to portray her. Is she sympathetic as a woman seeking validation for her scientific abilities in a patriarchal society? Is she a fool manipulated by others? Is she a traitor – both as a British citizen during war times but also in her personal life where she hid her actions from her family? Yet when we see her interact with other women she is often looking down on them in some way herself echoing the attitudes of the men she worked with.

Despicable for betraying her country? But, besides some dramatic shouting and frustration by her son, we don’t know how her leaks truly had consequences besides Leo‘s death and Sonya running away. Are we expected to sympathise with her when she finds Leo‘s corpse though she rejected him repeatedly and knew the consequences of what she was doing? To sympathise with her loss of her friend when she uses her discovery in Sonya‘s wardrobe to blackmail William? What of her being told the Russian research had somewhat of an unexpected boost? For which it is the professor, Max, not she who is imprisoned – and to which the film asks we sympathise with her anguish seeing him imprisoned apparently. There seems no true consequence to herself until her son refuses to represent her legally – something he later doubles back on for a somewhat forced positive ending. We even see her put the curare pin to her arm but then she is fine later. It’s as if she goes through the motions of regret but without the follow-through nor consequences of it.

Is she a martyr regarding her anti-war sentiments towards the use of nuclear weapons which would shared by later generations? Arguably yes and yet of course, because of such a ‘levelling the playing field‘ attitude to research, this all led directly into the ‘atomic age’ Cold War stand off between nations and all that involves which remains to this day with national defence budgets. The sort which often dwarfs all other spending in government budgets based on the paranoia that someone else might push the button. The sort for which retaliation would be initiated and thus mutually assured destruction the outcome wiping entire continents if not all mankind off the face of the Earth.

So instead of an open war there was, as a consequence of her actions, the suspicion of neighbours, the Red Scare of America and a long list of liberties people across the world lost. Perhaps, on some level, that was the film’s message that despite her best intentions nothing really changed. Everything is eventual and she merely sped up the Soviet Union’s nuclear research. But that would be a very favourable interpretation of her actions to the point of blindly deeming her moral on the basis of the simple logic that a protagonist is intrinsically moral. That’s the sort of naïve logic seen in propaganda.

You could, on some level, argue that due to the nuclear research race she was, by a long sting of sequential events, also partially responsible for Chenobyl. Okay that’s, of course, a stretch but it hopefully indicates how naïve her attitude was in assuming all people think like she does as if governments, let alone individuals, don’t have differing ideologies and priorities just as certain choices led to the meltdown of the reactor and there still being an exclusion zone around the site to this day. The film wants us to act like there were no negative consequences to her actions and MI5 and Special Branch are just angry she leaked information not that her actions led to empowering a foreign power which had ill intentions towards our allies if not also ourselves.

She holds true to the view expressed by Marcus Tullius Cicero that “an unjust peace is better than a just war.” The film enforces this by ignoring later events prior to the interview with Special Branch, save for her discussion with her son of having lived in Australia, as if the height of the Cold War never occurred and thus painting her as somewhat a tragic heroine undeservedly to those who may be unfamiliar with the terrors of the era where people suspected their neighbours of being spies, lists were written (most famously Orwell’s) blacklisting people so they would never be allowed positions of influence or access to sensitive information and so on. All we are presented with is her good intentions and not the consequences of them.

Often, despite the film’s best effort she is a somewhat wretched figure who shows no true autonomy unless it relies on the stereotypically portrayed wiles of women such as hiding secret in a box of women’s sanitary towels knowing a young male inspector will blush out of embarrassment and let her go with it? For the most part she shifts between Leo, the professor Max she is having an affair with (who is later her husband admittedly) and the later Sir William who she blackmails for being a homosexual with photographic evidence so she can escape to Australia from her predicament in Britain at the time.

Ultimately it can be safely said this script could have been written anytime after Hiroshima as a propaganda piece and, depending on what the governing bodies wanted the message to be, to either show her as a traitor, the western perspective, or as a noble spirited comrade thinking of the world as a whole which would be the the Soviet version. Albeit, of course in the Soviet/International Communist version, glossing over the true intentions and values of the Soviet governments of those nations at the time through the rhetoric of ‘worldwide comradeship’ as is seen in much of their propaganda and in the film repeatedly echoed by Leo calling her his ‘little comrade’). People suffered for what she did and she sees only her own sense of right in the matter. Any consequences between the end of the war and her being interviewed by MI5 are never mentioned so we, I presume, can apply real world events. Certainly the film never addresses that aspect even casually.

She is initially faithful to Britain but after Hiroshima’s tragedy she began to leak information to Russian spies. In a truly fictional drama (even let us say and alternative history one where it’s all but our world with a few key differences e.g. The Man In The High Castle), where we don’t know the later events in the world of the film, this can be framed as a noble action – a truly humanitarian action even – but we live in the world where these things played out in reality time and time again due to international espionage so there were consequences unlike in the film. Espionage was very much at the forefront of popular culture (e.g. the novels of John le Carré, Ian Fleming’s James Bond, The Ipcress File, The Avengers, The Saint, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And many, many, more – some grounded, some fantastical but all concerning espionage). People died for less important information than the atomic research she gave and the film cannot, despite it’s best efforts and even having an actor of Judi Dench’s ability, make us ignore this fact.

At one turn the film presents her as intelligent but at another profoundly self involved, contrary and irrational in her decisions. She was ultimately what is termed a useful idiot for the purpose of Soviet scientific, and therefore military, knowledge.

The film tries to pose her as often striving against patriarchal norms but she folds to it repeatedly despite a few momentary gestures of refusing to abide by it. She has values but seems to only act out of spite by leaking the information with no idea of the real consequences of her action. She closes with the statement she was ‘levelling the playing field‘ but that isn’t even naivety but outright, wilful, blind stupidity with no forethought of what such information enables foreign powers to do. To put it bluntly this film ultimately endorses her encapsulating the misogynistic values of men of that era. It’s shocking but watching it it’s undeniable this film holds the values of the early twentieth century not of a contemporary production. The script isn’t sure if it wants you to sympathise, destain her or to have conflicted feelings towards her and so falls back on propaganda like simplification but without the through-line of following through with the sentiment it has woven that she is truly at fault and not someone to even have pity for despite it’s desperate efforts to attempt such a tone by the end.

Both Sophie Cookson, as the young Joan, and Judi Dench, as the older Joan, do their best but the role seems so convoluted scene from scene it’s hard to really gauge how it should have been performed.

Dench arguably has the easier part as her part plays out over a few days rather than years but it then places so much weight on her to carry the production to set the context of how we view the rest of it. Do we view the rest of the film as Joan‘s biased (and somewhat falsified) account of events? Was she truly naïve? Too many questions are left for Dench to imply answers to in her performance without the aid of a better script and editing.

To further my view this film is propaganda in structure we only need see how flat the other characters are written.

Leo, for the most part portrayed as a male femme fatale clearly linked to Communists going as far as to lovingly call Joan his ‘little comrade’ seductively. The only real development he gets with when giving her a locket with a curare poisoned pin once she begins to commit espionage. Later he is is found hung in his apartment. It’s suggested it was the Russians who killed him but it could have just as easily been British Intelligence. The latter is never even humoured in passing as a possibility though it would be more logical as only the one source of information has been compromised. We find out afterwards he truly did love Joan and had a son though it’s implied he also had a similar relationship with Sonya as Joan finds a similar locket at the abandoned home of Sonya later on. Tom Hughes does his best with the one note role but ultimately it feels like a retread of his performance as Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria.

Max, the professor of the British effort into atomic research and later Joan‘s lover seems incredibly generic in his role in the piece. She has an affair with him, later marries him (after he decides to divorce his current wife who is never seen on screen – divorce itself being somewhat scandalous in the era) and bears him their son Nick who is a grown man in the later set parts of the film. He is apparently dead by the later part of the film though it’s never explained how though presumably it was of natural causes.

The film in it’s fractured efforts wants us to both enjoy their budding relationship yet also potentially judge it possibly. He with his clumsy confession that he chose her for her mind but she has a nice face too (later confessing to her, post-coitus, it’s at that moment when he fell in love with her), and her for not rejecting him knowing he was an already married man. In fact the adultery side of it, which was a legally permissible grounds for divorce (damaging to Max as the adulterer), is severely downplayed though it would have been the reputational ruin of both at the time. (which in part might have played a role in escaping to Australia too in hindsight).

Again her later declaration ‘you wouldn’t understand how things were back then‘ comes to bite this fictionalised narrative in the rear. Adultery would be highly immoral in the era (and not exactly something we think well of even now without extenuating circumstances).

We never learn anything about Max‘s previous wife except she was a barrier to him getting together with Joan. Yet at that point in the film they want you to like Joan, going about it almost forcefully, as the next scene is her being spoken down to by a Canadian scientist saying she would be more interested in a tumble drier they have. It almost begs us to side with Joan, having shown her sympathetically, yet due to how it’s depicted it falls on deaf ears for being so on the nose.

Do they want you to look past the surface and already begin to disassociate with her or do they want to lull you into considering this act of adultery as okay (which was deemed so immoral, to the still quite archaic legal system at the time, you could cite it as good cause for an immediate divorce and the adulterers would be a social pariahs at the time let us not forget). Why? Because they end up together in the future? The repeated phrase of Joan‘s about not understanding the time period again comes into question. Divorce was something people were judged for too though that would be a case of deeming them of ‘poor moral character for not being able to maintain a stable relationship/ as a source of gossip for others/unable to control or satisfy their partner’ rather than the far more scandalous faux pas of adultery where they would have been deemed ‘wantonly immoral in their lifestyle and a risk to be associated with if you needed to be considered of good moral character’ for employment or other matters in polite society.

The film glances over those aspects as though they didn’t matter. Certainly Max‘s previous wife would have potentially been likely to spend her life unable to marry again in that era because of him. But they’re not core to the narrative so get omitted I guess though they would add to furthering an audience’s views of Joan’s morality and consideration of how her choices affect others. A missed opportunity.

As for how Max comes across… he is a generic portrayal of a stereotypical Cambridge (or Oxford) academic of the era. Have you watched other British dramas set during World War II about the intelligence services’ efforts? Then you’ve seen him many times before with a different name whether based on a real person or fictional. They are all interchangeable in how they are portrayed. There is nothing notable about him. Even the affair is played out in the staid, emotionally mute, passionless, way the English seem to enjoy such things being portrayed for that era. (Basically as shorthand consider Lady Chatterley’s Lover in how clueless the titular character seems to be of her own needs and emotions yet desperate for intimacy). I say that but they so love seeing illicit affairs portrayed in dramas which speaks something of the national character. He is just a placeholder in the narrative. Prior to the Special Branch/MI5 interview it’s implied he is dead and likely never knew the full extent of what Joan did. When her son presses her on how much he was aware of she replies bluntly yet confusingly ‘enough’.

Unfortunately it seems Stephen Campbell Moore is also doomed to repeating his performance of another role from a different production or indeed, possibly, he repeats this performance again when portraying a character in the film adaption of Downton Abbey which was made the following year. He seems typecast into a lot of these emotionally blank upper/middle class Englishman roles. He is good at it but it must be soul crushing to be so typecast even if it does pay the bills and ensure a steady flow of incoming work offers.

Sonya is a well off university friend, of foreign origins (Russian emigre in origin I think but I’ve honestly forgotten), who later has a child and meets with Joan outside of her work at the research offices. She clearly holds sympathies for the east but it’s never clear if that does as far as betraying British values. Later in the film, when Joan visits, Sonya has already hurriedly cleared her room of both her own and her child’s possessions to evade capture by the authorities. In a wardrobe Joan finds items of Leo‘s including a photo of a boy and handwritten notes with a photo of William kissing another man. At the end it’s revealed she returned to Moscow with her child by way of Switzerland where she had contact with Leo‘s son. Another woman caught in the world of espionage but apparently one who, implied off-screen, more fits with how we imagine women of the era being involved in espionage as depicting in other media i.e. somewhat of a socialite using connections and unguarded chatter to gain information.

For the most part she serves as the only other prominent female character in the narrative. The only two other women to appear are a Special Branch/MI5 interviewer in the modern sections, who is just a functionary thus has no characterisation beyond being a stoic interviewer and a secretary/tea lady in the war time parts who, unaware of her real intentions, gives Joan a box of sanitary towels where Joan hides the information she is leaking as an investigation begins in the offices where she is working.

Tereza Srbova, a Czech actress, does her best but this role is relatively one note on paper and doesn’t really give her much space to imbue it with anything short of coming across as clearly a questionable figure in her allegiances. Nonetheless she is one of the better performers and comes across as appropriately charming yet suspicious. I have no doubt she is someone worth checking out in other roles.

To briefly digress regarding the secretary/tea lady is the only person with a British regional accent in the film and how she is interacted with implies she is somewhat stupid and looked down upon by Joan. That’s an issue with these sort of British films – everyone is middle class and that carries a worrying level of class bias with it where if you are not an RP speaking English person you are somewhat looked down upon or ‘foreign’ in the sense of being incapable of understanding events from the unquestionably virtuous and intrinsically fascinating actions of the middle classes.

The most succinct way I could describe it is Don Quixote and Sancho Panza where the middle classes can’t conceive of the working classes being capable of intelligence equal to their own. Even when doing the same things (or consuming the same media) the middle classes somehow are deemed to be appreciating it on some profound level beyond the ability for working class people to contemplate let alone achieve. To the middle classes the working class are base illogical creatures there to serve a purpose not play a role and British dramas of this sort tend to endorse that by omitting them, marginalising them or playing them up as something to be looked down upon.

Refer to my reviews of J K Rowling’s Strike adaptions for a few demeaning portrayals of working class people in contrast to their betters. As for foreigners they’re all portrayed with a certain level of contempt to varying degrees in these period dramas with the Canadians being quasi-American in their depiction here, Kierl (the spy scientist) is mocked for his manner repeatedly until he is revealed to be a spy (at which point he is mockingly praised) and we have already noted Leo and Sonya who are presented as questionable figures even before they’ve said more than a few words (though in their case it’s justified within the narrative’s context). If you’re not English, middle class or better, then your a caricature in these sort of dramas very often. ‘Stiff upper lip’ and ‘no sex we’re British’ and all that…

Nick, Joan and Max’s son, who serves as her legal representation acts as the moral adjudicator speaking on behalf of the audience. In turns angry, frustrated and despairing. He denounces her and says he will not legally represent her but apparently relents by the end – albeit off screen so we never see how nor why he changes his decision except for it being his mother. Certainly it would be a very dark mark in a legal career to have a spy as a mother and nothing would soften that stain on his reputation though it is never addressed here in aid of giving a positive ending. Joan is an old woman and therefore we should forgive her apparently despite the clear implications of her actions. They even have him shout at a reporter who shouts ‘traitor’ at her before giving an impassioned speech.

I’ve seen Ben Miles in other things and he can really pull something out of nothing with roles and he proves it again here. With a few scenes you fully appreciate the position his character is in and he brings a nuance to it which just doesn’t exist in the script. If you ever have a chance to see a recording of The Lehman Trilogy he was in then it is unquestionably amazing even if you’ve no interest in the subject because it is a powerhouse performance by Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and himself.

William Mitchell is another college friend. I honestly barely recall him during the film even when referred to by his later title Sir William. In short he is there as a narrative device to explain how Joan went to Australia with Max after his imprisonment. It seems overly convenient. Also it shows that not only are the working class near non-existent in Joan’s experience of the war but the lone upper-class person she knows is beholden to his vices of homosexuality ( illegal at the time in Britain though as a member of the upper-classes it wouldn’t make him a social pariah and at risk of attack, or even at risk of murder, but just deemed ‘eccentric’). So he also is someone the middle classes, at least through Joan’s perception, are allowed to feel superior to due to giving into his vices though she herself gave into lust by committing adultery. Later William Mitchell reveals Leo had a son and Sonya went to the boy in Switzerland before heading onto Moscow. Joan wants to go to Australia and so blackmails him with the photos she found thus leading for him to arrange for Max to be released from prison so the couple can go to Australia.

He serves as little more than a forgettable narrative device and to portray middle class people in an even more profoundly self-aggrandising light as moral arbiters of societal norms despite all that has been committed by these characters without due criticism.

Freddie Gaminara has absolutely nothing to latch onto in the role and does what he can for the brief time he is present. Part of me feels perhaps the edit was unfair to him and he might have had more of a role in the initial cut of the film as he is all but absent past the college scenes barring one offhand mention when Nick and Joan are talking in the interview room and his later blackmail scene.

Everyone else I’m sad to say play such fleeting roles in the story they barely warrant mention. They do well with what they have. That’s the best I can say. Nina Sosanya as the MI5 agent does well and is a face many may recognise f you watch a lot of British dramas. There are a lot of recognisable faces in this film.

Melita Norwood reading her statement in her garden

Brief overall review of the Film:

You’ve seen British dramas set during this era of history? Here’s one more to add to the pile. Read about the real life event it was based on or go look elsewhere.

It’s all blandly filmed with a muted colour palette. The pacing is sedate until the third act when there’s the slightest suggestion of urgency when Joan has to cover herself during an inspection and a few consequences of the espionage occur. Even then it’s glacial.

This is at best a ‘Sunday evening drama’ on TV (ITV here in Britain to be exact, e.g. Poirot, if you need context). If you’ve seen those then that’s what you are getting more or less. It’s slow moving, overly ‘chocolate box’ in presentation and doesn’t help you understand the consequences of what she did nor it’s consequences outside of her immediate (very isolated) social circle. If you want a film which will illicit the response ‘there’s a war going on you know‘ from you here it is.

It actually reminds me of dramas from decades ago involving Gregori Rasputin where the court intrigues of the Romanovs all but make the First World War a minor background note to the events occurring inside the palace.

This film comes across in much the same way with events outside Joan’s immediately social circle being little more than passing bits of dialogue by other characters. Even the turning point about Hiroshima is merely some one telling her about it casually rather than her reading a newspaper, hearing a news report on the radio or some other method.

It’s hard to make a film where a woman is both the victim and manipulator of patriarchal society without coming across as a bit of an immoral person who challenges our own moral values. However it’s even more of an achievement to do that and also make the character not illicit any sort of strong reaction whatsoever. But here it is. She had an affair, she committed espionage against her country and there are no consequences whatsoever to her personally. Oh yes she reacts to Max‘s imprisonment, to Leo‘s corpse and to Sonya‘s overnight escape – but it’s others who suffer not her. She does these things and it all passes as if it was always going to be this way it seems. Everything is eventual. Perhaps in an earlier draft it was more clear how older Joan’s views affected her perception of the past and she had come to terms with how things turned out and justified them to herself as inevitable but the film as it stands merely plays out as if the character’s themselves read the script and were merely playing their role in a drama in some poorly done meta-fictional way. But again I am trying to find something that isn’t there as it is so miserably generic.

It’s a dull, near aimless, British drama. If you’ve seen others you’ve seen this. Read about the real life events instead and you’ll find more of interest. If you like real life espionage this gives you nothing. If you like British drama this is bland so worth skipping. If you want a World War Two drama… go elsewhere… I can’t stress that strongly enough as there is absolutely nothing here.

As soon as it began with the ‘based on a true story‘ text I knew this was going to be biased but I didn’t think it would be such a generically British, middle-class centric, film. The actual events of espionage feel like they play second fiddle to the melodrama of the affair, Leo’s flirting and scenes of men being sexist toward Joan.

Apparently leaking sensitive information and blackmail is acceptable behaviour to be an anti-war quasi-feminist. The Cold War apparently is something you can forget happened when making a spy seem virtuous. It’s actually quite insulting to what people actually underwent for just being accused of it let alone found guilty. Perhaps that was the point – Melita Norwood never faced consequences for her actions as the British government decided she was too old to undergo it and thus this fictional version is never truly held to account for anything she did in her life. She was a puppet in others games even when she believed she was doing what she wanted and had no accountability.

It couldn’t be more demeaning to women if it tried despite how it probably hoped people would interpret it. The moments where Clement Attlee jokes she is in charge of making the tea at a meeting about atomic fusion, a Canadian scientist insists on how a tumble drier will impress her and other moments only serve as gilding the lily of what is already at it’s heart a deeply demeaning narrative. The views of men from a past generation we can view in context but it seems the narrative itself seeks to rob her of any sense of autonomy by making her a mere pawn in the agendas of others due to her emotional response to the bombing of Hiroshima to justify her espionage activities (which barely last 15 minute of the run time it seemed despite being the marketing focus of the marketing) or by accentuating her physical frailty and moral powerlessness in old age.

Earlier I mentioned how the main character seems to reflect Marcus Tullius Cicero’s quote that “an unjust peace is better than a just war.” I wish the film had actually discussed that more by addressing the Cold War era but it didn’t and thus deflates the entire core of this film. How can we evaluate the character of Joan when over half a century of her life and events in the world as a consequence of her espionage are ignored? It’s a bizarre decision even if it was only addressed in passing to make her acknowledge what her choices led to. It’s frustrating if not infuriating.

It’s a plodding British historical drama filled with worthy English actors fussing about their middle class affairs and underplaying the historical aspects of the narrative to the point it feels like it’s in contempt of them. British historical dramas of this sort: you’ve seen one – you’ve seen them all. Embarrassingly it is true here…

Tl;dr

”What if they took a British propaganda script, written in the early Cold War era, and made a mildly propagandist melodrama film today with no alterations to the dialogue?” – you get this more or less.

Yes, even with the older Joan parts. The ‘script’ wouldn’t be aware of the events of the Cold War and it’s universal sense of paranoia at that stage. Those scenes would be presented as her ‘some time in the future’ having been a woefully naive ‘useful idiot‘ puppet of the Soviets (except here they tried to make her somewhat sympathetic and fail).

It’s embarrassingly bland in presentation and generic in it’s narrative. There is little actual espionage despite what the marketing suggests. Go elsewhere. Whatever makes you interested in this go elsewhere. No really. On your head be it unless you are suffering insomnia and want a cure!

Escapes (1986) : Horror Anthology Film Review

An anthology of five tales of terror, each originally produced for video. The titles are “A Little Fishy” (a.k.a. ”Something’s Fishy”), “Coffee Break”, “Who’s There”, “Jonah’s Dream” and “Think Twice”. There is also a framing story called “Hall of Faces” featuring Vincent Price.

Framing story – part 1: ‘Hall of Faces’

A young man, named Matt Wilson, gets a VHS in the mail delivered to him . He didn’t order it but decides to watch once home for the evening. It has Vincent Price in a hallway of mannequins embedded in the wall who introduces the selection of stories. Imagine if the candelabras from Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast were placed in a 1980s music video based on German Expressionist cinema with neon lighting. After a slow pan through the curved corridor is Vincent Price waiting for his cue to begin his monologue. That’s the first part of the framing device called ‘Hall of Faces’. We go on to watch the various stories and return to the young man’s motel like home at the end to conclude the film.

Story 1 – ‘A Little Fishy’

A fisherman goes fishing on a riverbank but ironically gets fished himself via a red apple he finds and decides to bite into on the river bank. The line pulls on the hook in his mouth and he is dragged into the water. That’s it. It’s the first story and thus a ‘mood setter’ I suppose… or a one note bad joke made into a short film.

Story 2 – ‘Coffee Break’

An obnoxious young delivery driver asks and old man for directions and promises him he will drive slow, enjoy the scenery and stop for a coffee at a diner. However he drives past it deliberately and yet finds himself in a loop until he finally stops at the diner to ask for directions.

The server is the same old man who gave him directions previously and who goes on to offer him a cup of coffee. The old man tells him he didn’t keep his promise so now he has all the time in the world to enjoy his coffee along with the other occupants of the diner.

The young driver tries to escape in his vehicle but ends up back at the diner again where the patrons laugh at him as the man comes outside to offer him coffee again. The young man ends up stuck there forever drinking coffee.

Story 3 – ‘Who’s There?’

Experimental ‘apes’ escape a lab, watch some kids play football and stalk an overweight jogger through a forest. One of them runs around wearing the guy’s tracksuit jacket which he abandons at one point. A chase ensues through the forest as the jogger is pursued by the largest of the creatures. As soon as it catches up to him it says in clear English ‘tag, you’re it’ and they all run away from the man laughing like excited children. To them it wasn’t a terrifying pursuit but part of playing a fun game of tag.

Story 4 – ‘Jonah’s Dream’

An old female gold prospector finds a piece of gold and goes into town to sell it. In town people greet her as Mrs Tucker and comment on her continuing efforts to find gold up in the mountain long after her husband passed away (just because it was his dream it is later revealed). The shop owner tells her people were worried about her but he can’t give her much for what she has brought on that day as she hasn’t paid her last bill yet. He reiterates he can’t give her anything and advises her to sell the mountain and move into town. She says it was her husband Jonah’s dream and refuses to take his advise. The shop owner says they’re there if she needs them.

She is well liked by the community and even gives one of the kids outside an Indian arrow head she found when she was prospecting before heading back to the mountain. The men outside ask the shop owner how much in value she brought in and are told $92. (Bear in mind that’s $92 in the 1980s so he probably could have given her something and kept the excess value for himself as interest). They agree she has gold fever like Jonah did.

She goes and puts flowers on Jonah’s grave. Later, in front of the fire, she reflects on what people have been saying and looks at an old cameo/portrait of Jonah remembering him panning for gold and how happy he was to find gold. The kettle whistles.

There is an explosion outside and the roof of her barn has been caved in. With her shotgun ready she inspects inside. There’s a glowing spaceship emitting noises. Eventually she removes the debris from it at which point it does a ‘Simon says’ toy sequencing of light and opens. There is lots of smoke then another bang which presumably knocks her out.

Mrs Tucker wakes up in the morning lying on the ground. The barn is flattened and there is no sign on the space ship now. On the ground are a number of dull rocks which are apparently gold. She calls out to Jonah that they had been sitting on the gold all that time because they had built their barn and house on top of it.

Story 5 – ‘Think Twice’

A man runs through some city streets. The sort which only existed in 1980s cinema. He mugs someone and looks through the bag he took for anything of value. A tramp with a shopping cart rolls by. He unfurls a cloth to reveal a gem stone he is carrying. He holds it close to his face and it begins to glow red.

The criminal mugs the tramp who begs him not to take his gem as it will be of no use to him. The mugger runs away past another homeless guy but then gets run over by a man in a suit who is drink driving through another alleyway. The driver gets out and inspects the blood on his car’s hood then picks up the gem which begins to glow in his hand. He drops it and gets back in his car.

The gem now glows blue as the tramp picks it up and smiles before breathing on it to make it glow red again. It brings the mugger back to life and, as the tramp watches, a police car appears with armed officers telling the mugger to drop the knife and purse he is holding. The mugger is arrested and looks on as he is taken away by the police. The tramp returns to walking the streets with his shopping cart happy with his glowing gem.

Framing story – part 2: ‘Hall of Faces’

The young man who has been watching the VHS listens to Vincent Price’s host giving a wrap up about the six stories. Except there have only been five. In a twist the last one involves the young man and addresses him by his name thus breaking the fourth wall. He tries to stop the tape and attempts to remove it to the denouncement of the host. As he runs through his house the characters of the stories on the VHS appear and crowd around him as the host laughs maniacally. Then the young man wakes up. On the back of the VHS case he sees it says starring Vincent Price and introducing Matt Wilson i.e. himself… then, in one final twist, Vincent Price dressed as a mail man laughs maniacally at him once more implying it was he who brought the VHS here in the first place.

The end…

The ‘A Little Fishy’ segment of the film.

Overall Anthology Review

When you compare this anthology’s host with figures like Tales from the Crypts’ Crypt Keeper, Brazil’s Zé do Caixão (a.k.a. Coffin Joe), John Carpenter’s Undead Mortician in the 1993 anthology film Body Bags and many other such anthology hosting figures… well the host of this anthology can be sincerely summed up as ‘ooh look we hired Vincent Price which is worth the price of admission alone’. No it isn’t. He is in about 2 minutes of it at most and only to rattle off an opening monologue, a few seconds of dialogue and laugh at the conclusion. He is the only thing that would draw people’s attention to this anthology. Oh but, in fairness, maybe you were looking up anthology horror films like me – that’s the other reason. Heads up anything other horror anthology will seem better after you see this including “H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion” the seventh vignette of 2012’s anthology film The ABCs of Death where a Nazi fox furry tortures a British bulldog furry. No really. At least that’s memorable… and mildly traumatic for the wrong reasons.

There is no set tone for the Escapes anthology. Some stories are meant to be funny, others are karmic retribution but there always seems a tone where you are meant to be taking them more seriously that the writing itself suggests. This is ‘fun’ horror and better aimed at children really but, at the time it was made, would have probably been classified as too scary for them by censors. I seriously doubt children nowadays would react to this with anything other than boredom.

‘A Little Fishy’ really seems like a student film or what some friends with a film camera would make as a fun project over the space of a day or two once summer. It’s like a Yakov Smirnoff joke: ‘In Russia you don’t fish fish – the fish fish you!’ There’s not much to say. It’s a one note short story to set the tone but it gives you the impression what you will be seeing are karmic stories where people get their comeuppance. Arguably they do albeit some end on a positive note.

‘Coffee Break’ really stands out as the best section in concept and execution. It is tonally quite close to ‘Creepshow’ or ‘Body Bags’. I might also say an episode of ‘Tales from the Darkside’ even might be the best comparison but with a heavy metal soundtrack. Lots of long shots of the van driving along roads are used to pad the run time though. Lots of heavy metal which reminded me of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. The coffee guy and the delivery driver both play off each other well but it’s a little too drawn out sadly. In fact most of these stories feel bloated by about 20% each in order to reach the run time when they would have a stronger impact being more concise.

‘Who’s There?’ definitely could have been the basis for a script on something like ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark?’ or ‘Goosebumps’. It’s an amusing little piece and in a more light hearted, child marketed, anthology it would have fared far better and possibly become a fondly remembered piece. As it is it just feels like another mismatched piece in a collection of stories that are tonally uncoordinated. If the low budget creature costumes, with their weird little ear stalks, were not enough then the fact one wears the discarded jogging jacket correctly should have tipped you off this is a lighter story. Honestly the application of the make-up on the main creature is well done for the era. It’s a nice simple concept with an amusing little pay off. Like most of these it needed tightening up choosing whether to play up either the humour or the threat through a greater sense of tension. Initially it seems to want to play to the latter but the resolution completely deflates that aspect.

‘Jonah’s Dream’ is the most drawn out and weak overall. It doesn’t really go anywhere for at least ten minutes then pushes a spaceship/meteor scene in at the end before the main character wakes up after encountering the spaceship. Maybe the encounter itself was a dream but there is no way you could interpret it that way from what I recall. In better hands it would have been a good one person monologue piece but instead seemed to be where money was wasted instead of tightening up aspects of the other stories. It is easy to see it being revised as a short drama where she discovers the gold under the house without the alien ship aspect of the story which feels stuck on to force it as part of this anthology. There is a lot of build up in this story with a relatively dull conclusion. The community gets fully fleshed out and it seems sort of redundant unless it was to get friends of the production and their children cameos for whatever reason. Really the important parts could all have been done by the one actress as Mrs Tucker with a flashback sequence featuring her husband (and even then it could be her recounting her words to herself so even that would be unnecessary). The whole exchange in the shop merely served as meaningless exposition. As part of the anthology series Amazing Stories it would be deemed a weaker episode probably.

‘Think Twice’ is well made but the core aspect of what exactly the ability is of the crystal makes it hard to follow. It grants wishes? It is an extension of the homeless man? It’s never clear except it leads to the defeat of the mugger and the homeless man is very attached to it. As long as you can get past that this is relatively good but unsatisfying due to the ‘rules’ or context of it not being explained or at least contextualised for the audience to reach a satisfying understanding. What the crystal is exactly isn’t explained so there is a distinct frustration regarding this story. What are the limits of the item? Really something else should have been used despite, presumably, a glowing, colour changing, crystal serving as a unique aesthetic for the film’s promotional material. What is the homeless man’s connection to the gem? If they revealed he was an alien (or something as convoluted) it would have made more sense to explain the crystal rather than leave it a mystery why the homeless man claims it will be of no use to the mugger and the things it apparently does. This seems like a concept meant for Creep Show.

The framing device ‘Hall of Faces’ is weak. Honestly it feels tacked on with little thought. Most framing stories are relatively weaker than the main stories inevitably but at least they contribute a fitting setting for, and reinforce the themes of, the other stories being told. V/H/S, despite also having it’s framing device criticised, at least has a little more impact than ‘old man laughing at you’. Tales from the Crypt (1972) reveals all the story protagonists who gathered had died in their individual recounted stories and were destined for hell together, Trick ’r Treat (2007) has Sam wander though each of the stories, Southbound (2015) has the separate stories occur along the same stretch of road and there are many other examples of how to construct a cohesive anthology.

His inclusion in the framing story is just an excuse to plaster Vincent Price’s face on the cover of the VHS in order to sell it. Okay, it’s a pretty standard way to wrap up an anthology and connect the stories (though if you paid attention some share actors between each other). It reminded me a bit of the final story in season 4 of Yamishibai where the storyteller is revealed to have brought all the stories to life (oddly enough that isn’t as big a spoiler as you might think as the introduction of each episode in the series features a masked storyteller). Framing stories tend to be hard to make effective though there are some from the 70s (and those noted above) which achieved it but they had a stronger thematic through-line between stories so it already felt connected even without the framing story to create a cohesion between them.

There’s nothing to draw you to this unless you feel like riffing on it with friends or having an example of how cheesy some 1980s and early 90s horror anthologies could be. It’s B movie horror stories in the bad sense. As is always said of anthologies they’re only as strong as their weakest link and the overly drawn out panning shots used throughout instead of establishing scenes just seem there to pad out the running the time. Having read the above you’ll imagine something better than what was depicted on screen. I looked up the IMDB entry and it sees this was a vanity piece for David Steensland who directed, wrote and produced it. Who was he? Where did he go after this project? Was it a pseudonym used by an established person in the industry? We might never know…

The entire film is on YouTube should you want to watch it. It’s not worth it to be honest. ‘Coffee Break’ is classic cheesy 80s horror. The ‘Who’s there?’ one is a funny story to tell a child to amuse them (no need to watch it – any embellishment you make will be an improvement). ‘Think Twice’ is flawed but could have been good if what the gem was was at least alluded to and honestly the rest are rubbish.

There is a version of Escapes which runs 16 minutes longer but I don’t know what that adds to it as this is already a bloated film. I don’t think there is an omitted story just more overly long panning shots I presume. If you’ve seen the longer version what extra is in that version?

Tl;dr

For anyone interested I would rank the stories, best to worse, as: Coffee Break, Who’s There?, Think Twice, A Little Fishy, Jonah’s Dream, Hall of Faces.

Skip it or go check it out on double speed on YouTube if you must check it out. It’s forgettable and poorly made. More a fantasy than horror anthology. I bet you only came here because there’s so little information about it. Admit it – you did. If you liked it, besides due to rose tinted nostalgia from seeing it many years ago, tell me and explain why.

BBC Adaption Review – Strike: The Cuckoo’s Calling

Overall the tone is awkward. It’s not dark enough to take seriously and so you start seeing all the narrative conveniences. The original book was apparently filled with dark humour and swearing but it seems both have been toned down for a general audience for fear children might see this due to Harry Potter. People, as a contrivance to push the narrative forward with little challenge, just seem to give Strike information with little if any justification – many breaching the confidentiality of information act time and time again. The characters in this challenge of deductive reasoning be they red herrings, antagonistic persons or actual criminals are all but given pantomime level depictions in terms of their overt antagonism.

Our leading man is an Oxford drop out ex-military police investigation branch member which is as Marty Stu a characterisation as you can do short of saying he’s a blood relative of Sherlock Holmes for a detective story. But he has a prosthesis. That’s his one permanent flaw. Everything else can be changed. He is the wish fulfilment figure for women who wish to ‘fix’ the men they’re involved with. Robin finds him down and out but through her presence he gradually becomes a better man if not detective.

Robin is… bland? I want to say bland but it’s more true to say she is a character who has no real issues (although I know how her major traumatic ‘character development’ revealled later in the series which… suffice to say it was hinted at but it’s still the most blatant ‘if you don’t sympathise with this character and fogive all her sins instantly after knowing this you’re a monster’ tactic possible). She is there as an audience surrogate but doesn’t seem to have much development beyond some quite generic ‘recognises the value in this gruff but talented man’ aspects and an innate ability to gossip and lie using a bad Liverpool accents on the phone. Her fiancé is portrayed as a bit of an arse in order to make Strike seem better by comparison and attept to force us to sympathise with her if nothing else. She has a job offered by Strike yet applies for another job and is offered it (arguably Strike’s job was temporary and she needed something more secure but the series never gives this point it’s due), gets given a dressas a ‘bonus’ for her help (which is a bit sexist ironically considering how far Rowling goes out of her way to declare herself a feminist) but overall she just seems to be another narrative device with little charm.

Their names are a little on the nose too.

Comoran, while being the name of an Irish folklore giant, is also one letter off cormorant (hilariously closely connected to a bird known as a shag in what has to be some of the most juvenile ‘pretending to be mature’ naming possible by an author I’ve ever seen) are described by the RSPB as

“A large and conspicuous waterbird, the cormorant has an almost primitive appearance with its long neck making it appear almost reptilian. It is often seen standing with its wings held out to dry. Regarded by some as black, sinister and greedy, cormorants are supreme fishers which can bring them into conflict with anglers and they have been persecuted in the past.”

… so basically the film noir detective of the bird world.

While cute little robins are described as:

“sing[ing] nearly all year round and despite their cute appearance, they are aggressively territorial and are quick to drive away intruders. They will sing at night next to street lights.

… Robin. Batman. Sidekick. Also small but ready for a fight. Even Rowling had Strike acknowledge it in the book.

So our leading man is old school, a little pompous seeming and previously persecuted (and also he strikes!) while his sidekick is small but pluckyour grizzled male lead and his plucky, red head, young side kick and probable future love interest.

Show Premise

Cormoran Strike, a war veteran turned private detective operating out of a tiny office in London’s Denmark Street, is wounded both physically and psychologically. His unique insight and his background as a Special Investigation Branch Investigator prove crucial in solving three complex cases, which have eluded the police.

… Or, as with a lot of pulp fiction writing, ‘the police solved the case with the evidence at hand BUT THEY WERE WRONG watch as our intrepid, Ayn Randian wet dream of a protagonist,hero through brute force, social connections, illegal methods and sheer ‘right place at the right time’ luck achieves the impossible and reveals the truth! Women want him, men want to be him.

As mentioned everyone seems to have, even if only for a moment before dropping out, attended Oxford or Cambridge. The dual purpose being that Rowling is writing to reflect her audience because, it seems to her, only the most educated people apparently read books (apart from, of course, everyone who bought her books who didn’t attend one or the other of those institutions thus making her a worldwide best selling author rather than a literary curio) or these sort of things only occur to ‘the beautiful people’ and social elite whose lives are just so much more interesting than we common folk.

Often you would see that happen with Agatha Christie too but in fairness she was churning so many books out she needed to have as many instantly recognised short hands, e.g. people who go to Oxford or Cambridge are highly intelligent, wordly, knowledgeable and therefore would deduce with some evidence the facts of a crime, as many different locations as possible for variety to appeal (don’t like country estates? How about a village? The seaside? How about aboard moving trains?) and thus it was a bit of a ‘cheat’ since such culturally elite people were financially capable and prone to exotic foreign travel which still wasn’t anywhere near as commonplace as it is nowadays so addeed to the writing’s appeal. It aso reflected the end of the Imperial era’s mindset of venturing into the world and conquering the local troubles – which in this genre’s case is usually a murder or theft. However Rowling is writing that era’s detective story in the modern age and it is an awkward fit resulting in, ironically, a far narrower world in direct contrast to the same figures about a century ago.

In case you’re wondering the second book involves the murder of an author so she fell into that classic ‘write what you know’ author specific trap that early in the series! Stephen King would be proud.

Not one risky step whatsoever is taken in telling the story. If asked ‘please give me the most stereotypical detective story possible’ no longer will we turn to Agatha Christie, who more or less defined the genre single-handedly so originated what others would copy until it became a cliche, but we will turn to Rowling… oh I mean ‘Galbraith’ though we all know it’s her. If you are from Britain and remember when the news covered that it had been revealed she had been writing under a pseudonym then it was this particular book that was being referred to. I guess, as far as the publishers were concerned, it wasn’t selling well enough for such a high value author so they needed to ‘leak’ her name to boost sales.

You can have cliché characters, I mean 90% of literary detectives from the past few decades could fit into the depiction of Strike, apart from his leg, and you wouldn’t notice. Grizzled, likes a drink, ‘seen things’ in combat/police work and generally dislikes humanity except when women throw themselves at them for a quickie. One day someone will write a cross over where one detective replaces the other and no one notices until they actually see their face.

I think my main issue with this adaption, on the assumption the book covers these things, is we get small, but sequence destroying, skips in events. For example does Strike ever lock his office’s entrance? It must be on a latch as every walks in and out of it freely and occasionally people are sat in there waiting though both Strike and Robin hadn’t been in since yesterday. It’s a narrative device we often unconsciously witness. As an example: if you see a character pick up a key the audience acknowledge this and therfore you can skip to them opening the door and without  literally depicting them put the key in the lock – but here we don’t even have the ‘key’ mentioned in passing let alone seen sometimes before seeing the results. In the context of this series it seems everyone immediately gives Strike their life story and not barrier stops him except for tension (e.g. the safe opening). Nor, if I’m honest, do there seem to be any repercussions to certain actions. Does no one wonder where Lula’s will came from when Strike hands it over? Do we really think it would be as easy as Strike pretending to be taking a phone call to walk right into the studio of Guy Some? The police detective seems to just give Strike case information freely without quit pro quo. Strike pays off a criminal to steal the Satnav from the car and it’s never mentioned otherwise.

Everything slots too easily into to place to the point there is no risk nor resistance to Strike uncovering the truth – he even gives chase through a crowded market with little issue though he has an apparently ill fitting prosthesis! It all just comes too easily. If solving the mystery, as with Agatha Christie, isn’t the focus then give us more nuanced character development not just characters who are deemed highly intelligent because you name drop Oxford and Cambridge, are not morally good or physically capable just because they served in the army (was the criminal suggested to be ex-military? If so the depiction of ex-service men as either hero or villain is damning and isn’t a positive considering how many in real life find themselves incapable of re-adapting to civilian life thus falling between the cracks if they’ve no support) and not strangely flawless just because they’re female.

Apart from Rochelle, who seems more a figure of pity, all the women seem successful intelligent and only have faults because of the men they’re involved with. It’s a strangely anti-feminist (e.g. ‘here’s a dress as a bonus’, engagement issues being the main issue for Robin and Strike’s ex seems to instantly not just get re-engaged but marrying someone else in what seems to be a very brief time period), yet simultaneously misandranistic, tone posing as feminist as Rowling has with women where they’re both depicted as perfect, highly intelligent, beings surpassing their male counterparts with ease in every way but at the same time completely reliant upon them though every man has so critical flaw making them anything but sympathetic save for Strike as the leading man whose only permanent ‘flaw’ is a physical one. Most of the male characters are depicted as unrepentant in their antisocial behaviour and yet our leading man Strike, to a limited degree since this is the first book in an assured series (which other authors cannot reply on happening so their characters will evolve over a book), has some small progression from a misanthrope drunkard to a man slowly overcoming his limitations and finding worth in his life. Which is implied to be thanks to our heroine and her plucky attitude entering his life and not his own personal development having closure on what seemed a mutually destructive relationship with his ex. He just hadn’t met the right woman yet to make him a better man. The closest we got to a negative depiction of a woman was Strike’s ex who, after apparently having a very troubled relationship with him which they repeatedly tried to repair, quickly moved on though it’s presented as hypergamy. Oh and the ‘blow job for a fiver’ woman who just seemed, in the context of the series, to be a repugnant caricature of working class people or those on benefits – which Rowling famously once was before the first Harry Potter book got published and found it’s audience. It’s the sort of depiction of the less well off you only see in works of the pre-Victorian literature unless it’s by someone like Charles Dickens, Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths or Dorota Masłowska and others where it’s used for social commentary to discuss why these people ended up like this and with their often jaded worldviews.

You don’t get that with Rowling. Bad guys are bad guys. Men are flawed and most can’t be redeemed. Women are perfect except when they rely on men. Men need a woman’s intervention to change. Working class people are very likely criminal scum unless they’re too stupid to be. Basically J K Rowling would like to be the 21st century Agatha Christie but hasn’t accounted, realistically, for shifts in both literature and society.

28 панфиловцев a.k.a. Panfilov’s 28 Men a.k.a. Battle of Moscow

A 2016 war film based on the Soviet propaganda legend about a group of soldiers, Panfilov’s Twenty-Eight Guardsmen, who heroically halt and destroy Nazi tanks headed for Moscow before they all perishing together on the battlefield. It is set in the Eastern Front of World War II and covers the 8th Guards Rifle Division operations during the 1941 Battle of Moscow

Supported by the gamers of War Thunder. The film was crowd funded by the donations of 35,086 people. Thus allowing the specially set up Panfilov’s 28 film studio to be made for the project with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture and the Russian Cinema Fund with assistance of the Kazakhstan Ministry of Culture and Sport in partnership with Shaken Aimanov Kazakhfilm with the assistance of the Russian Military-Historical Society.

… so yes. Just like the American army gives money towards Hollywood films that promote them, including the Transformers franchise, so too do Russian and Kazakhstan government departments. However if the Russian Military-Historical Society had access to the vehicles they are the ones who contributed the most although my assumption is they were more likely acting as the background extras in the scenes that required it while trained actors were at the forefront ad the vehicles were provided by the government departments.

Directed by

Kim Druzhinin
Andrey Shalopa

Produced by

Anton Yudintsev
Andrey Shalopa

Screenplay by

Andrey Shalopa

Starring

Aleksandr Ustyugov
Yakov Kucherevskiy

Azamat Nigmanov
Oleg Fyodorov
Aleksey Morozov

Music by

Mikhail Kostylev

Cinematography

Nikita Rozhdestvenskiy

Production
company

Panfilov’s Twenty Eight
Gaijin Entertainment

Release date

November 24, 2016 (Russia)

Running time

105 minutes

Country

Russia

Language

Russian

Budget

$1,700,000

Box office

$6,346,968 (January 2017)

₽385 million CIS
₽366.6 million roubles (Russia)
₸61.3 million tenge (Kazakhstan)

PLOT

USSR, late November 1941. Based on the account by reporter Vasiliy Koroteev that appeared in the Red Army’s newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), shortly after the battle, this is the story of Panifilov’s Twenty-Eight, a group of twenty-eight soldiers of the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, under the command of General Ivan Panfilov, that stopped the advance on Moscow of a column of fifty-four German tanks of the 11th Panzer Division for several days. Though armed only with standard issue Mosin-Nagant infantry rifles and DP and PM-M1910 machine guns, all useless against tanks, and with wholly inadequate RPG-40 anti-tank grenades and PTRD-41 anti-tank rifles, they fight tirelessly and defiantly, with uncommon bravery and unwavering dedication, to protect Moscow and their Motherland.

SYNOPSIS

“Commemorating war does not only mean sorrow and grief. We also remember the battles and heroism that brought victory.”

– Commander, Panfilov Division, Bauyrzhan Momyshuly

November 14, 1941

A training barracks outside Moscow.

‘Of course mental strength matters most. Physical strength and courage too, but not so much.’ is the opening dialogue of the film.

Notably though in the dialogue you hear tovarishch ( Товарищ ) the subtitles omit this. Good in one way to avoid excessive subtitles but it omits indicating who is a citizen and who is a party member for those with a bit more of an in depth knowledge of the era.

A group meeting is held outside as the commanding officer or sergeant explains a tank’s weaknesses. Molotov cocktails are handed out.

The commander rides off on a white horse as the meeting continues.

A practise is arranged to train how to attack a German tank. The officers smoke saying the battle will be historic with looks of foreboding concern clear on their faces.

A war story report about a comrade Filin who was killed taking out an anti-tank gun with grenades is read by a lieutenant. The soldiers discuss the bulletin half mocking how often they’ve heard it repeated as they cut wood to make the tank model for their practise.

At sun set the wooden frame tank is dragged by the soldiers as one stood in a hole is informed how to act.

Inside the officers discuss recent military movements and the impending confrontation.

Many are Asian, specifically from Kazakhstan, which you wouldn’t see in a western film of these events despite the geographical area Russia covers as the old propaganda always depicted Russians as 7 foot tall, platinum blonde, white men with heavy athletic builds – which ironically meant they then had to go hire Scandinavian actors, e.g. the Swedish Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, to depict this stereotype as it really isn’t as common in Russian heritage as they would like to think (though of course you have the Slavic ethnic group we most common think of when thinking of ‘a Russian’ who share a common genetic heritage with the Ukranians, Polish, etc). Of course this all came to a head with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a universally well known Austrian, in Red Heat. The irony being that, in the Soviet era, they depicted Americans in much the same way, overtly tall and muscular brutes, and so there was a lot of surprise after the fall of the Berlin Wall, from both sides, that actually they look more or less the same as each other being a mix of ethnicities and appearances.

The officers remain and discuss their concerns as the soldiers have a snowball fight outside ignorant of their impending fate as they’ve been stationed doing little if anything besides digging trenches pointlessly for some time now.

Everyone prepares to move out the next day.

A soldier leaves his woman behind. Is she his lover, wife, girlfriend, cousin or sister? We never know. (I looked away for a second but I don’t think the scenes given any more context than ‘cliché scene to insert for soldier’s beginning to move out leaving their loved one’s behind’. We never see her again nor is she mentioned.

Later the commanding officer addresses the assembled soldier backlit by a spotlight. He says inspirational things – how they’ll defend their beloved motherland and the ‘great’ German army will know failure. History has known many brave warriors but none more so than them defending not only Moscow but the rest of their homeland.

Marching a soldier tells a story of a village who were being attacked by bandits so chose to fight and hired an expert – a samurai. 40 bandits vs 7 men. The warriors built fortifications. The gang was defeated. Someone says they heard it but it was in America and cattle herders. They laugh and joke.

The officers discuss not being detected by the Germans and ask the commanding officer not worry about it. The CO tells them to dig in and hold their ground. Stand firm but stay alive – that is the paradox they are presented with he admits.

The soldiers continue discussing their tales of heroic warriors. Now they move onto the battle of Thermopylae. (As seen in Frank Miller’s 300 or it’s film adaption by Zack Snyder). Perhaps it is just me but this film is being a bit apocryphal citing seven samurai and 300… would Soviet soldiers know of either of those events? Of course the film makers are alluding to their films by Kurosawa and Snyder which themselves are based on the embellished legends of historical events and therefore this is a knowing wink to the audience that the film-makers here too acknowledge what they are depicting is somewhat fantastical but intended, as the story was meant to at the time, be inspirational but at the same time early in the film, if not the first scene, we have the soldiers mocking such propoganda which isn’t something you see in American made war films. Quite refreshing really though of course this is one of many such films based on historical war events.

Later the soldiers are digging trenches and mock an old woman calling them heathens ‘worse than Muslims’ joking she mistook the Asian Kazakh Russians for Muslims and then asked if they ran out of ‘Russian Russians’. (again I would like to think this is a knowing wink to the audience but I have little doubt Kazakh troops faced prejudice at the time just as was the case in other countries including America which split their troop along racial lines often). They laugh and their supervisor scolds them it’ll be sunrise soon so they need to finish up and the Krauts will be there soon.

A machine gun is set up looking across the frozen fields before being put back into the hole.

A swerving trench is dug into a treeline. A captain criticises the placement of a cannon but decides they’ll test it later

Soldiers mock a soldier who, having read a political leaflet, asks where he can get a white flag… then add the Germans will kill you anyway so you’re stuck in the red army.

It was a common theme to jokes during the Soviet time: you could run from the red army but where would you go? If you run away during battle you’re only delaying the inevitable conflict. If, outside of times of conflict, you got the necessary papers to travel you can only go to another part of the Soviet Union unless you”re connected in the diplomatic services or find good enough forgeries. If you did somehow get outside the borders you probably have no connections as all the white emigre (i.e. the people who fled in 1917) escaped with their entire families decades ago and anyone who defects later has to have a use to the west to ensure they can do so (e.g. be an exceptional dancer, scientist, etc) or skillset (e.g. plumbing/engineering) in order to help them gain money to survive. In other words you’ve nowhere to go to… You’re already home… so get used to it and do what needs to be done to survive here! Fatalistic black humour is a keystone of Russia’s culture during this period.

One soldier wonders if they’ve disguised the cannon enough with white cloth and such. ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’ he’s told how the Germans shot their air planes in the tail as there was not defensive gun there in it’s design thus leaving them vunerable until redesigned.

In the trenches others discuss fighting for their land. Because it is their land and otherwise there’s nowhere to live. Two forms of it exist: the Motherland can be burned – its where they live however the fatherland also exists – but it’s how they live. Someone asked ‘but if a Frenchman learned Russian they wouldn’t make him Russian?’ He’s teased that a German couldn’t be but if they fought the Nazis and learnt Russian then maybe a Frenchman could be.

A plane flies overhead. Its said it has paper thin armour. A soldier raises his rifle and is scolded that its foolish to do so. He shoots anyway and is joined by another.

Kazhan and other languages are spoken as the group is mixed. Soldiers discuss asking how well those outside Moscow live. A sack of potatoes. An old man is given barbed wire to fortify his shack but he says it’s pointless. The soldiers passing by couldn’t have any delicacies only what they could scrounge.

In the trenches the captain gets a radio call. They are to rise early tomorrow. The artillery commander arrives tomorrow. They’ll get support fire if needed.

Elsewhere under cover of night the Nazis run forward in formation preparing for the conflict tomorrow. In the trenches the red army men sleep. The Nazis uncover their cannons and begin shelling just before dawn. In the nearby village the old men look out wistfully. This is the last we see of them. Assume they’re dead because there will be nothing left on the horizon once the battles over.

A red army solider wonders if they know their locations or are shelling randomly. ‘3 hours no losses – except their hearing’. The captain approaches teases they couldn’t sleep. No answers one, not with this lullaby and is told they’ll have time to stretch their legs soon.

The captain mocks it is an orchestra but soon there will be an intermission and they’ll swarm the buffet. A solider is told to wear a helmet to protect his head as dirt flies past him.

The Germans begin moving forward in formation behind their tanks. When the shooting stops they’ll have arrived face to face with the Russians the Red Army captain is told.

The Russians take position under cover of the forest and wait for two shots to ring out signalling their counter attack. A solider mocks the Germans think they know the Russian weak point. Kazakhs, he says to his friend, they’ll show them Kazakh men when they attack Kazakhstan and is agreed with.

All is silent as we pan across the trenches where the soldiers are ready with their rifles poised.

A spotter reports what the German forces are composed of.

The captain signals to fire a cannon.

The spotter corrects the range.

The captain signals to fire again.

It strikes and some infantry are taken out but still the tanks move ever forward.

The Russian command centre marks of the map the events. Planes fly overhead… but they are German and the red army mock they’re like vultures ready to swoop down.

The CO is informed on the telephone of events. The trench soldiers begin firing and take out some infantry. A cannon takes out the treads of a tank. A volley nearly hits the trenches. The music is all in the minor key but building. A fragmentation shell is shot at the tanks being abandoned and kills its crew but another German tank takes out a cannon on the forest edge though the soldiers get into the trenches just in time.

The Kazakh sniper repositions as cover fire takes more infantry.

The Germans withdraw. Why the infantry march alongside the tanks seems foolish.

It’s commented they didn’t take long to leave. He’s told they’ll be back soon as he strikes up a cigarette. Isn’t it odd he says again. He’s told not to worry.

Another pair chat mocking that the Germans probably think anyone left alive will flee.

The Germans will change their tactics and hit the weak points. This was just a test.

The captain runs across a field to see a man, Pasha, being taken away on a horse drawn stretcher. He’s told everything is fine that they will be there when he returns to the front… but the captain has a look saying the bleeding wont stop and Pasha won’t make it.

Back at the trenches the soldiers smoke in silence. Sombre music plays.

In the trench’s office the captain reports to the CO. Six injured and Pasha went for treatment. Told to keep it up. As if there is another option…

It won’t be a sprinkler next time, he reflects after, but a downpour when the Germans attack again.

Natarov refuses to move as he wants to shoot a plane. He is told to take cover when it fails. Volleys of German cannon fire rain down along the trenches line knocking dirt about

‘See they don’t want to fight, saving themselves for Moscow – which is good for us – puts us at an advantage’ a soldier comments.

Another mocks ‘them being cowards certainly puts us at an advantage, lets hope they don’t bomb us to bits out of fear’.

The banter continues but it is acknowledged they’re not idiots even if they see tanks burning and people dying.

A massive volley of focused shelling rains down over the trenches. A solider sees his friend is dead buried under unsettled soil.

The sergeant in the bunker who said they were fearful now changes his tone reflecting the red army ranks will be thinned so they must become a stubborn thorn in the Germans side. ‘The strategy is no heroics’. He scolds a younger soldier who comments that’s it not a matter of choice to be shot.

An injured solider is being tended to by someone saying visiting the dentist is torture this is nothing – just as a shell sends him flying.

The sergeant reiterates no heroics – just burn tanks.

The commander paces back and forth as the radio operator tries to contact the fourth company who are out of contact. No success.

Shells continue to rain down.

The forest is left in smoking devastation. Soldiers slowly crawl out of the dirt checking who is or isn’t alive.

The captain goes around checking surviving numbers and having everyone regroup.

The German tanks begin moving again as the Russian dead are moved off the battlefield.

Off the front two more carts are ordered to carry people away and a message to be sent.

The Germans begin another assault on land. The lighting in the damaged trench is very cinematic suddenly in this one scene for the radio report to the CO. only 28 men left … but no re-enforcements can be sent. He has to hold the line. The CO sits back down disconcerted knowing he’s just given the group a death sentence.

The captain says nine tanks need to be set alight to send a message. He gives a rousing speech that they’ve nowhere to run.

”we’re out of options, brothers. Although our land seems vast, and we are ready to die for it, we have nowhere to retreat. And we cannot die until we stop the Germans because we’re defending the last line. After us, that’s it. After us, it’s Moscow.”

The soldiers resign themselves to their fate and begin preparing as the tanks approach.

Yakov is asked if the story is true the Nazis tired to blast him out of a dugout with grenades and he threw 14 back at them? He mocks that the story has already been blown out of proportion to that level. Lies, he says, but when pressed admits it was 5. then later they threw a sixth so he wouldn’t have time to react. The soldier asks for more but Yakov says he’ll tell him later. ‘When?’ demands the soldier. ‘At night, before bed’. As the soldier leaves he adds it wasn’t in the dugout either…

The sergeant says now its a matter of precision so they need to let them get closer so they know they’ve definitely hit them. Someone mocks he’s happy not to be a tank crewman as it’s certain death.

An older soldier prays. A younger soldier asks what he’s doing and he says nothing ‘for the motherland’ and the younger guy says that’s how it should be.

Everyone waits tensely. A few treads are taken from tanks by cannons but return fire takes out the crew of one cannon. Then the machine gun of a tank kills the Kazakh sniper so his colleague takes the anti-tank rifle and fires at the treads of one tank successfully. He hopes his brothers in arms rest easy now.

A machine gunner takes out Fascist infantry and one soldier wields a grenade. Grenades are thrown at the tanks. The machine gun give a new belt feed. A Molotov cocktail thrown on a tank. A rifleman mocks the machine gunner must be going for a record as he’s leaving none to be shot. A tank tries to shoot the machine gunner but misses. Then the feed ends and echoing shots of lone rifles ring out across the battle field.

Another anti-tank rifle man shoots a driver mocking he wont be swinging his cross around here… as Grisha the older soldier aids him…

a grenade takes out a tank and as another soldier tires to throw one he’s hit but throws it still. The German infantry are on top of the trenches now.

Red Army men are laid out side by side in the forest as the cannons are dragged further back by bleeding men.

A tank descends on 3 men. A grenade takes out the tank but two are shot. The survivor throws the Molotov cocktail and empties his machine gun. Fortunately a rifle man stops the tank by shooting the loner gunner.

Ammunition is running low so the surviving soldiers let the tanks pass in hopes to regroup and deal only with infantry.

A man crawls through the trenches picking up a grenade. But his is shot before he can throw it. But he can still shoot. So he crawls over the top and fires until he passes out. The man who aided him took the grenade and realises they’re losing.

The battle field is a mix of snow and charred soil. An anti-tank rifle is carried across the line and prepared. It takes out the treads of a tank. A cannon takes out the treads of another. The man calls for someone to bring a shell but no one is left alive so he grabs on off a nearby corpse. But this is enough time for the tank to aim its cannon and take him out along with the cannon he was manning.

An anti-tank rifle man and his brother are taken out. Then another. The tank climbs over the trench but gets stuck ripping soil out burying the corpses.

Slowly the Red Army soldiers are being picked off now one by one and buried by the tanks pulling over the trenches.

But a man rises out of the dirt (Yakov?) and throws a grenade before dying and it stops on of the tanks.

This gives the remaining men a second wind and one runs up, climbs the exterior and throws a Molotov cocktail into the window of the tank hoping it warms them up.

The riflemen and assault rifles hold the line but Vasily is hit and passing out telling Grisha and others to fight on. The survivors are running through the trenches and throw a Molotov into a tank on their way. Grisha is told to fire ‘at the pedestrians’ and is covered by another just as a grenade lands near them. They’re both find and go to find Diev.

More German infantry run across the field and now the Russians are down to small hand guns. The Germans fall to the ground when they think a grenade has been thrown. They realise it was a fake

The sergeant tells the injured political officer its okay only a few are left…

The German infantry walk over the barbed wire as the Russians lie in wait. One man picks up a hatchet like trench shovel. That’s all they’ve got now. Another holds a knife. Tension builds.

But a machine gun mows the Germans down. Who is it? A German tank commander looks through his binoculars. Its… I don’t know who. Younger guy. The belt feed seems to never end nor get jammed. One German makes a break for it but the feed continues again suddenly. Daniil was the man on the mounted machine gun.

Over the radio the German tank commander has an order to withdraw. And so the tank line moves back.

The Red army men breathe a sigh of relief.

The sun sets over the quiet smouldering landscape as black smoke pours out of the tanks above the snowy upturned fields.

Daniil joins the sergeant ‘saved some aces for last’. ‘it was luck’. ‘luck had nothing to do with it’. He jokes they’ll tell their grandchildren there were more then the 14 tanks they fought. They lament everyone of them is a hero… because so few are left. That’s how they fight… that’s how war is. A few others climb the mound in front of them and look out upon the horizon. It was a victory but it was a loss. So it is in Russian war fare. There is no glory.

We end on a monochrome sweeping image of the Soviet Realism styled statues erected in those fields and the markings of where the trenches were.

During the credits we see more of the monument erected to the men who died in a park. I don’t know it but I’m sure people who’ve been to Moscow would recognise it as before it an eternal flame is lit.

REVIEW

The music in this film is quite simple in it’s composition but has it’s charm. It’s not bombastic orchestral work like an American film just simple strings and accompaniment underpinning the tension and moments of determination we see the ensemble undergo.

The recent trend of shaky-cam during conflict scenes is thankfully avoided here so you will always clearly see events and know where things are within context of each other. The camera work is on the whole serviceable for the rest of the film but nothing particularly memorable.

Costume wise perhaps I felt at the start everyone was a little too clean, as was the criticism of Enemy At The Gates, but then they had only been training not in conflict at that point and it’s certainly gone by the point they’re in the trenches. As the historical society was involved no doubt they aimed for as much visual accuracy as possible however, in contrast, as the events are based on propaganda it is easy to believe that many events or the film are exaggerated for effect.

Set design, apart from the interior of the Commanding Officers room, is limited to exterior shots of , at most, small villages or the trenches. Maybe a lot of it was filmed on sound stages for all I know but you wouldn’t think so. Again, along with the camera work, it’s serviceable on it’s limited budget and thus achieves what it needs to if not at times excels like that one very cinematic shot moment of the shelled trench room when the radio request is made to the CO.

Of course the film is biased to come degree – all war films are even when they’re praised for being unbiased – but it was crowd funded and so there is that level of being indebted to the contributors… just as major films are to their producers. However as I noted they give nods acknowledging it’s based on propoganda and therefore even if these events occurred they’re heavily embellished stories and should not be taken as a report of fact unlike some other war films. But on the whole it’s a straight forward affair and if you’re looking for something about the Eastern Front of World War II it isn’t one I would say you shouldn’t see. Are there better films? Probably but I like the straight forwardness of this and that it doesn’t do any ‘big damn hero’ stuff until the final moment and to be honest when you hear about some of the real life things that occurred during war time it actually underplays how dramatic it could have been portrayed.

If I do have a criticism it’s probably the translation and subtitles. They should refer to the Nazis as Fascists because not all the forces aligned with the Germans were technically card carrying Nazis though were aligned with them. Look at my review of the Estonian film ‘1944’ to see a different perspective on it. Thus there is that issue though I image many would offer the counter argument that the Fascists in this film are all but faceless mooks there to be ‘the opposition’ either to kill the protagonists or be mowed down by them thus giving them any context beyond ‘target’ is asking too much especially for something based on propoganda.

Also if you wanted to read the credits on screen forget it unless you’re watching this on a cinema screen and have it at 4kD…

As for the DVD: it’s no thrills. You just get the subtitled film and a chapter select.

You like war films? Give it a go. You want to see a recently made Russian war film. Give it a go. You want to see what crowd funding (which then gets further funding from government sources admittedly) can achieve? Give it a go. Just don’t go in with high expectations. It gets the job done and is reasonably entertaining but it’s not something you will remember much about afterwards.

1944 (Estonian WW2 film) Synopsis and Review

1944 is a 2015 Estonian action war drama film directed by Elmo Nüganen. The film first premiered in February 2015 in Berlin, Germany, before its release in Estonia and other Northern European countries. It was selected as the Estonian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards but it was not nominated.

The film is set in the year 1944, from the Battle of Tannenberg Line (25 July – 10 August 1944) to the Battle of Tehumardi in Sõrve Peninsula (October – November 1944) and is shown through the eyes of Estonian soldiers who had to pick sides and thus fight against their fellow countrymen. Choices had to be made, not only by the soldiers, but also by their loved ones.

The film focuses on the individual in the context of the war rather than war itself, and shows the war from both perspectives – those of the Estonians in the Red Army and in the German Army.

The film was funded by the Estonian Film Institute, Estonian Ministry of Defence, Cultural Endowment of Estonia and private investments.

During the run of the film Estonian, German and Russian are spoken.

Excuse me not using names for the most part but in war films everyone seems reduced to stereotypes and can you honestly say, barring the central characters, you ever remember the names of the entire cast during these – most of whom die shortly after their ‘provide a minimal amount of character development by showing a picture of family which foreshadows they’ll die in the next scene’ moment?

Synopsis

We open on text:

‘In 1939, Soviet Union and Germany sign a Treaty of Non-Aggression. A week later, World War II begins. In 1940, Soviet Union annexes Estonia. 55 000 Estonians are mobilized to the Red Army. In 1941, Germany occupies Estonia. 72 000 Estonians are mobilized to German armed forces. Since German Army, Wehrmacht, accepts only German citizens, Estonians have to fight in Waffen-SS and other military units. Now in 1944, the Red Army is back on Estonian border.’

The subtitles at the start confuse ‘German’ and ‘Germany’ while omitting the definite article. Great start… and they move too fast to read for the last sentence or two. I notice once or twice later the subtitles seem grammatically wrong again and suspect they were done by someone whose not a native speaker or was put under severe enough time constraints they didn’t double check their work though for the most part it’s fine.

In the trenches the fast shakey camera makes effective use of the limited perspective.

OF course it lacks the ‘Hollywood sheen’ but in some ways that works in it’s favour. Also the minimal use of music during the charges of soldiers so as to not glamorise events and give way to moments over the stark depictions of combat.

One or two have camouflage on their clothing which I assume isn’t period accurate but might be. It’s the issue of so little coverage of World War 2 events which are not explicitly form German, American, French resistance or British perspectives. As a western viewer you automatically assume the attackers are Fascists but in fact it’s the Soviet forces or as seems to be the films preferred nom de plume the Red Army.

The quieter moments in the trench barracks feel far more effective as we focus on the actors and this doesn’t require big flashy events. The story of the people involved and their motivations rather than the glorification of war. Stories of how they dealt with the situation they were in and the sense of losing oneself – the loss of personal identity as a pawn in the motivations of others.

After proceeding under cover of darkness the music has a continuous tense cord with a few stark notes. THey join some Danes. This really is a narrative not explored in the West at all.

A fat Russian chokes a man. Few if any Russians would be that fat.

Some soviets surrender and are show from behind by the protagonists.

The German commanders appear. A government man appears and congratulates them and spouts the party line they’ve proved the Estonians belong to the Aryan race. He hands out signed photos of Hitler thinking they would get a wooden or iron cross

The poem ‘soldiers mother’ plays over the radio as they mock Hitler and one returns saying the Dutch have their own toilet paper and gave him pack of cigarettes.

One soldier shows the medal his father gained in World War 1/ its all that’s left of him. An argument breaks out as there are Estonians on the Soviet side. What will they do when they face their countrymen?

Outside propaganda plays over the tannoy and they begin to sing to drown it out as they move through the trenches.

The look out says its been quiet. When one of the brothers takes over a sniper shoots him in the head and the brother left behind is in shock a moment before beginning to cry. They give him something to drink. Later one reflects that his uncle in Tallinn told him not to go but he had to as there were arrests being made. An older soldier comes to relieve him and asks if being stubborn will bring his family back from Siberia . He knows it wont. They speak of the war and what its for. Whether they’ll gain their countries independence.

A procession of civilians walk along a road as military vehicles pass them. One soldier thinks going to Tallinn would be better as they could escape via a ship to Sweden. They shoot in the air to scare people off. A self defence force leader, clearly a civilian as he’s in an suit but with an armband, asks if they’ve spare ammo. He is gives them the weapons they ceased and the man jokes with out ammo they’re no batter than clubs.

A woman stops the procession and makes a man throw away furniture and take people on his cart. The soldiers joke she is the real furher. ‘men like cow’s udders’ she says as she loads a child into it.

A plane flies overhead. They take cover in the forest. It begins to fire down on everyone. Bombs are dropped. Sainas goes to save a child but ironically is shot dead while the child is fine. Another runs for the child and saves her just in time. The driver of the soldiers truck put sout a d fire and they go to escape as the reds will be there any moment. Main guy says his sister has the same doll as the girl but she is for away now. They decide to load people onto the truck. Injured to hospital refugees to Tallinn. The girl wants her doll to tell main guy something. He holds it to his ear and after he return sit the truck leaves and the soldiers walk away in another direction on foot as a folk song plays. A storm brews as they walk across the countryside.

They see due to the open landscape there’s no way to retreat if they cant hold the location along the road on the edge of the forest. A senior member tries to rouse them with a speech of how if the Russians beat them back they’ll retake it tomorrow. Then they begin to dig the trenches. A passing man offers them food. All quiet along the western front is mentioned. Again the leader tries to rouse them about their flag flying in Tallinn but the main guy is more pessimistic. They laugh and eat. It is a moment of peace in the war.

Sept 20 a motorcyclist goes past them at speed as they’re hidden in the dry grass. A tank and supply trucks procession is heading their way. They snipe the commander and fire rockets at the tanks.A sniper takes out their sniper. Many of the characters we have been following are wiped out.

They realise they’ve been fighting Estonians on the Soviet side. Their worst fears. What will they do now it’s a reality. Both sides stare at each other. Mournful music plays out. This is the reality of fighting a war begun by others and for their agendas. The soldier who killed the poetic guy looks at the documents in his pocket and seizes them before closing the corpses eyes and laying him to rest.

At a camp we follow the Communist side. They realise it was ‘normal Fascists’ they were fighting. The commanding officer berates them then leaves. The secondary commander tells them to bury the dead and stay out of the way of the NKVD officers.

A man asks if they’re burying fascists with their own. ‘its the end of the road for everyone’ someone replies. They pity that this is how things have turned out as they bury the dead and mark them. 31 dead red army soldiers.

The same old couple who served food to the fascists now serves it to the communists. They soldiers have meat and give some to the couple. It is German stuff they had ceased. The bearded soldier pities them as the couple have nowhere to to and will be labels kulaks and sent back if not to the Gulag.

A glasses wearing soldier shows a photo of his family and everyone knows his spiel off by heart and call it before he says it. They pass through the golden fields and reach Tallin in Sept 22.

Masses of Red army soldiers are there and propaganda plays over the radio accompanied by upbeat band music.

Beard tells killer to be happy and dance. The soldiers are fed and enjoy. Else where people pick through the rubble and inhabit dark silent buildings. Killer Juri visits the apartment of the dead poetic fascists woman and gives him the letter which he took from the corpse. She reads it in silence as we hear the dead man narrate his words talking about family.

Juri asks if he can help as she is tearing up. He removes his boots. She asks how he got it. Karl was her brother. She asks if he died in battle. Juri confirms it. How does he know. Juri says he witnessed it. The family were taken to Siberia. It broke Karl who blamed himself for what happened. She asks of him. He was conscripted in 39. She asks why he didn’t fight back. They were to disciplined to disobey or were cowards he admits. His family? The soldier is are his family but there’s less and less of them. She says he and her brother were similar. The innocent feel guilty. The guilty feel nothing.

She says he must be hungry and cooks for him. She watches him as he eats in silence. He takes out a cigarette and she offers him an ash tray. Its her uncles apartment not hers. They fled two weeks ago by boat to Sweden. March 9 the red army flattened the city. Juri says he was told it was Germans. She insists only women children and the elderly were there.

A little girl drew her something at the orphanage and she goes to show it but they’re interrupted by the radio. A moment passes between them and we see them walk in the park together. bird song. Slow piano. ITs not a romance as much as just comfort in kindred souls. She goes to check a door and find sit open. They go inside the church. Their footsteps echo.

She asks if he is staying long. Or will he move on? Where to? To Saaremaa he replies. She smiles to him takes his hand which fluster him and says they’re alone. He puts his arm around her hesitantly. She says she would forgive the one who put their family ane on the list to be deported. A name Jogi was on it. Juri doesn’t react. She recalls how they lived before the war smiling and falling asleep on his shoulder.

In the morning she gestures he write. She asks his family name. ‘Tull’ he lies. He is Jogi. An NKVD man calls him to the comrade captains car. He says that they’ve fought many battle together but bourgeois nationalists are still there. He says he is young and has time for everything including hanging around at night.

The captain asks who the woman was. They had observed him. Juri lies its his sister. The Capt. says he doesn’t remember it from his file. He asks Juri to report any anti-soviet efforts to him. Juri looks unsure.

17 Nov The soldiers move out across the countryside passing a form. One breaks rank and bearded soldier , Prohhor, is ready to shoot but it told to hold. The guy is at his home town so they allow him to call to the other residents. Beard mocks his grandmother said Estonia was small but not this small..

The soldier notes no one is there sadly. After a moment he says that he’ll go find them something to eat.

At night the commanding officer , Juri, staff sergeant calls on a soldier to have the three replacement soldiers come in to speak to him at the lit table he is writing at. He notes from how they stand they fought for the Germans. He tells them to forget their past and kept their mouths shut. Juri tells farm boy to feed them as well ads the others with the potatoes he fried. Farm boy tells them eat as much as they like as there is no point leaving any for the rats.

Juri asks if he heard anything about his folks who had abandoned the farm. All the farms in the area were destroyed, the people deported to Germany. He reflects the war will be over in a year or two and everyone will be back then. ‘My house is whole and I’m alive’ he remarks before leaving.

Juri later details his strategy plan to the leading soldiers.

They all drink some vodka from a bottle before farm boy remarks that Kreml (the Kremlin… Again refer to my view the subtitles were not done by a native English speaker) wanted to see him.

We next see Juri report to the Comrade captain who was cleaning his handgun. Juri hears the gun click as he closes the door but in fact the captain was putting it away before inviting him to sit. He calls on Juri to toast ‘to the victory’. The captain notes Juri got 3 replacements and asks if he checked them, Juri says he did. ‘Juri you are from the right family and have made the right decisions so far. Just like your father in his time. You haven’t applied for the party membership?’ Juri answers no. ‘That’s even better. You’ll be trusted more. You’ll go far. We’ll send you to study, and you’ll get an officer’s rank. You’ll be the company commander soon. We’d make a good team.’ Juri notes the company already has a commander, Captain Viires, as the Comrade Captain walks away. ‘That radish… Red outside, white inside. Those kinds of guys should be kept an eye on. Don’t spoil your life, Juri’

The next day, November 19, the cannons are being loaded as battle ships fire on the soldiers proceeding along the shoreline. Mines are on either side of the road. The tanks runs over a corpse. Shells hit the tanks. Many of the infantry are taken out by the impact. Still they press forward. One soldier breaks rank and runs across a field only to be killed by a landline. The soldiers get pinned down by machinegun fire and rockets shooting the tank. The tank fires on the machine begun wall blowing it up but still the infantry have to charge for cover. The tank knocks out the corner of a hut Fascist soldiers were coming out from. The on foot soldiers split into two groups heading along shallow trenches. One is blown up by a soldier dying holding a grenade and his wrist. They reach the command post and order the people inside to emerge. They then shoot them in cold blood though they surrendered, They were not ordered to shoot. Juri asks the man if he thinks it’ll bring Sarah back. The man doesn’t answer.

Later Juri sits alone outside smoking. Beard is hunched over at the table. He asks if Juri cant sleep. Juri says her cant forget the guy whose letter he delivered to his siste.r Did he tell him? He couldn’t.. But he fell in love mocks beard. ‘You didn’t kill him, the war did’. ‘MAybe God will forgive. Or not.’

Nov 22 they’re on the move again as an overseer captain says one last push and Estonia is theirs. The company Captain tells Juri the political office is interested in him. The captain says its as if they’re eating shit everyday. He had hoped to bring the men home but asks where did he bring them? He gestures for the company to stop its advance, checks and then they move on. They notice movement Fascists in the river crossing. The Fascists shout don’t shoot as their Estonian. The company captain calls for no one to shoot and those in the river to come up. Immediately the overseer/political captain runs up and interrogates them. They were not volunteers and are 16 years old. The Germans wanted to take them but they wanted to go home. The political captain tells Juri to take them and ‘shoot these traitors’. Juri says they’re children. The captain looks back at the cowering boys and announces ‘Soviet citizens who have defected to the enemy must be shot. Staff Sergeant Jogi take your men and obey the order. They were forcefully mobilised. Juri, obey the order.

Juri says he will not shoot them.

The political captain draws his handgun and immediately shoots Juri through the heart. All the men draw their rifles and aim at him.

‘Shoot. Shoot and all your relatives will be sent to the Gulag. [The company Captain faulters and slightly lowers his aim]. Are you scared? That’s right. One must be scared of Soviet Power. Captain Viires. Obey the order.’

The political captain slowly begins to raise his handgun but a shot rings out as he is shot dead through the chest.

It was the bearded soldier.

Viires orders the company to move forward and the boys to go home. Get rid of their uniforms and go home.

Beard stops a moment and kneels at Juri’s side removing his hat. Everyone stops. Beard removes a slip of paper from Juri’s jacket. He crosses himself and everyone stand over the bodies.

We then have a narration of the letter as beard delivers it as Juri had delivered the woman’s brothers letter earlier. An old woman and a girl live with her now. From the orphanage no doubt. Juri wonders, if not for the war, had they met after the war, maybe in the church, if he could face her and tell her the whole honest truth. ‘We need to start from a blank page. This is from Juri Jori, the Red Army soldier who killed your brother in a battle. I couldn’t tell you eye to eye. You are the only one left to me. Please forgive me if you can.

Then a black screen with white writing:

‘To all who fought and suffered in the name of freedom.’

Review

I think the first thing to be said is that the title is so basic you are likely to never look at this film if you see it on the shelves in a shop or a list on-line. If it had a more distinct title, even ‘ Battle of Tannenburg’, ‘Tannenburg Line’ , ‘Battle of Tehumardi’ or anything as generic, but still distinct, as those I think it would have gotten more recognition as ‘1944’ alone makes it sound like this was one of the laziest by the numbers productions possible when in fact it has a good message, told without demonising bias towards any one party, and provides incite into a perspective on the Second World War not often given a voice in the west. It hasn’t got the gloss of American financed films but the core concept of showing the divide of a nation during occupation by both Fascist and Soviet forces is interesting as there are no definitive ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys barring those who are self interested and seek political power. Everyone is swept up in the course of a war between foreign powers and has to face the reality they will be killing their won countrymen at some point.

If I have one issue with the film it is perhaps that the conflict scenes are bland. I wish perhaps it pushed those to the side as much as could be reasonably expected of a film set in this period involving soldiers and focused more on the characters. The death of the protagonists certainly comes as a shock to a first time viewer but it provides an important lesson I feel is often missing from war films – people have lives and things they are doing which come to an abrupt end because of events. OFten this is given the ‘here’s a photo of my family’ omen of minor characters who you know from that point on are going to be the sacrificial lamb of the films narrative so we see the results of war but the protagonists remain able to carry out their story to completion.

As I have said already I feel the translations for the subtitles on the DVD needed to be proof read as there were a few moments were the grammar went out the window. I have to assume either the translator, and the subtitler, were not native English speakers or there was a severely tight schedule and mistakes were made which leaves it to be criticised at leisure by consumers. Hopefully the company is more carefully in later releases as this is the sort of thing that will put people off buying their products. The DVD also was very bare bones but really I have come to expect that with many Foreign films now that are not released by Criterion, Curzon Artificial Eye or other long established Foreign film DVD makers who offer extensive extras.

The only truly antagonistic figures in the film are the political officers – those who have thrown in their lot completely with either the fascist or Communist forces to have power even if it means betraying their countrymen. Everyone else, for better or worse, only looks forward to when the war is over and they can return to their normal lives. The hardship undergone by civilians is represented by the procession of refugees fleeing their home in the country encountered by the Fascist soldiers.

On a sidenote I personally found the woman suddenly forcing a man to throw away his possessions so it could carry people, when said people had clearly already been on this procession for a long-time alongside the cart, a bit of a double standard. It is symbolically putting people before possessions, which is a good in the moment message, but could represent a willingness to abandon their own culture, represented by the objects that are discarded, in order to survive which seems at odds with the rest of the film’s philosophy of maintaining Estonia as a unique entity after the war’s end. Objects can be replaced of course but this moment in the film felt a bit to forced in and not cohesive with the rest of it.

The sense of Estonian national communal unity is represented by the old couple who serve food to both the Fascist and Red Army groups seeing only fellow countrymen not political sides.

The sense of the nation’s division is symbolised by the brothers from the farm being on seperate sides though on a first vieiwng this might go unnoticed as the brother on the Fascist side only mentions it in passing he is from the farm while we see the brother on the Red Army side return to the homestead. Contrasting this are the two borthers who are both on the Facist side and one witnesses firsthand the death of the other via a sniper.

If anything the bereft sister, who sees both her brother and potential love interest die, seems the anomaly as she seems to live a comfortable life even in the middle of a war torn country when everyone else has either been forced to choose a side or flee their homes. I suppose she offers the contrast to the farm boy soldier who has a home but no one to be there with while she has the orphanage ( or at least the little girl and old woman) in the end thus having a community but nowhere to call her own as she is living in her uncle’s apartment.

Would I watch this again? That is the big question and the answer is… Yes but it isn’t a film I would recommend if you didn’t have an interest in North European/Baltic cinema nor World War 2. In fact I don’t care for the seemingly endless number of films based on World War 2 but this gave a unique perspective similar to War Horse, due to the shifting perspectives of each side being represented, but without the near fairytale tone nor the convenience of it being due to a horse. Both sides are represented equally unsentimentally as external forces having a negative effect on Estonia.

In the end the concept far outweighs the execution sadly. I think with a bigger budget or more unique cinematography it might have been a world cinema classic rather than just a successful film in Estonia which you find cheap in your local supermarket with a bland, non-descript, cover as they hope people will blindly buy anything World War 2 related. Time will tell how it is received in the long run but I feel it was even-handed noting the strengths and failings of each side without leaving the audience with any prejudice save that Estonians were forced to take a side or evacuate which was sadly a truth of the era they lived in and if anything they delivered this message possibly too gently in regards to what happened to citizens. A good message, fair depiction but not a film you will remember long after watching it. The unique Estonian perspective however lends it at least a novelty value for anyone interested in not seeing yet another retread of the ‘America saved the world’ slew of Hollywood depictions nor the more blindly patriotic films of somewhere like Russia.

Wałęsa. Człowiek z nadziei [Walesa, Man of Hope] 2013 film

A 2013 Polish biopic film about the leader of the trade union Solidarity movement (and later president of Poland) Lech Walesa by Andrzej Wajda. The film was selected as the Polish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards, but was not nominated. Recently, on 10/01/2017, this film was shown on BBC4.

Synopsis:

Lech Wałęsa, an electrician at the Gdańsk Shipyards, participated in local demonstrations during the 1970s which became violent and left their mark on him after he returned to his daily routine. Ten years later, a new uprising occurred and unexpectedly became a charismatic leader of the Polish dockworkers.

Wałęsa’s leadership role signifies the beginning of a new movement that successfully overcomes the country’s Communist regime, and Wałęsa is pushed into representing the majority of Poland’s population. The Soviet Union authorities, previously regarded as too powerful to be confronted, eventually tolerate existence of the movement a degree. However he is at one point taken from his home in the middle of the night by Soviet officials to an unknown location. On their journey there they pass a road and Lech declares that the people will support him but his escort laugh at this and tell him to open his window and ask the people themselves. On the roadside are some poor farmers who tell him they hate him and he has done nothing to help them. At the interrogation location he is fed and openly shows defiance to the authorities before being eventually released when it’s clear they will get nothing from him. Later we see his wife accepting the Nobel peace prize on his behalf in 1983 as he believed if he left the country he would not be allowed back in.

The film ends on a note of Soviet members saying they will get him and Wałęsa being left unchallenged by opponents. The Polish example of the group Solidarity causes a domino effect throughout Eastern Europe. People in Eastern Germany follow the Polish example, starting demonstrations for freedom which achieves a peaceful reunification of Germany. The Soviet Union then dissolved alongside Yugoslavia.

In the epilogue we are told that while Europe is reshaped, Poland remains stable and peaceful. Yet a huge variety of political parties unfold and Poland is on the brink of becoming as ungovernable as the late Weimar Republic. Wałęsa is subsequently elected as the first president of the new Polish democracy; but, this is followed by feelings of resentment among the Polish people who start to think that Wałęsa is becoming overly privileged. Consequently, the Polish people start to seek out ways to diminish Wałęsa’s significance, until they finally accomplish their goal through uncovering actions from a past period.

Cast:
Robert Więckiewicz as Lech Wałęsa
Agnieszka Grochowska as Danuta Wałęsa
Zbigniew Zamachowski as Nawiślak
Maria Rosaria Omaggio as Oriana Fallaci
Cezary Kosiński as Majchrzak
Mirosław Baka as Klemens Gniech
Iwona Bielska as Ilona, Wałęsa’s neighbour
Maciej Stuhr as Priest
Małgorzata Zajączkowska as Shop assistant
Marcin Hycnar as KOR member Rysiek
Dorota Wellman as Henryka Krzywonos
Adam Woronowicz as Tadeusz Fiszbach
Marcin Perchuć as Instruktor
Ewa Kuryło as Anna Walentynowicz
Arkadiusz Detmer as Malinowski
Mateusz Kościukiewicz as Krzysiek
Piotr Probosz as Mijak
Ewa Kolasińska as Shipyard worker
Michał Czernecki
Remigiusz Jankowski as Shipyard worker
Wojciech Kalarus as Chairman
Maciej Marczewski as KOR member
Maciej Konopiński as SB agent
Marcel Głogowski as Bogdan Wałęsa (aged 8–10)
Wiktor Malinowski as Jarosław Wałęsa (aged 3–5)
Kamil Jaworski as Przemysław Wałęsa (aged 5–7)
Jakub Świderski as Ludwik Prądzyński
Bogusław Kudłek as Bogdan Borusewicz
Michał Meyer as Jerzy Borowczak
Grzegorz Małecki as UB agent
Ewa Konstancja Bułhak as Customs official
Damian Jagusz as soldier

Review:
Be honest – if you read that synopsis and didn’t think ‘this is propaganda’ then your not being critical. This is a view you must take with any biographical works as inevitably there will be a bias present no matter the intent. Either the subject themselves, in the case of autobiographies, is editting the truth in order to better fit their personal self image or intentionally presenting an image they wish to be accepted as true or, in third party works, you are viewing the events through the perception of someone interpreting their subject for better or worse. It reminds me about someone who once told me they only read biographies because they deal in reality while fiction is just make believe. For such people this film will be accepted at face value.

Andrzej Wajda is a freind of Lech Wałęsa and so there is inevitably a bias. This film romanticises events in favour of depicting Lech Walesa as a man of the people who never did anything questionable. It is a love letter to him displaying his defiant, outspoken behaviour and being seen to be rarely challenged successfully in his opposition to the Soviet era establishment. It is highly romanticised not in it’s imagery, as Wadja’s style is distinctly realist and unsensational (barring a few concessions to cinematic flare), but in how we are presented Lech’s personality, showing him often making political statements and being in control of any enviroment he is in – even when he is taken by the secret police from his family to be interrogated.

Many scenes of the film include achive footage in which the faces of the actors are superimposed onto the footage of the person they are playing. Due to the low quality of the footage in compariosn to modern high definition imagery this is done quite effectively although I would wonder if it feels jarring for those familiar with the real life individuals and this footage in its original form. Apart from this we have dramatisations of Lech’s personal life which presumably has been sourced from multiple accounts to create as close to the actual events as possible – or maybe it’s just from Lech’s perspective and therefore favours his interpretation of events.

In the final third of the film, once he is held by the Soviet authorities, all we have is speculation based on his personal accounts of events. My issue with this? In most of this film we have the intergration of modern and contemporary footage (with the actor’s faces placed over those of the actual historical figures they play) which lends itself to making us unable to distinguish which parts are fact and which parts are further along the sliding scale of fact towards we accept as ‘historical fact’.

What I mean by this is we can only base our knowledge on the accounts given by people of the time and any evidence we are able to establish. History is only what we are told happened and which re-enforces the oft cited cliche ‘the victor writes history’ as we are discovering, time and time again, when historians go back to events long ago and uncover new evidence that the previously accepted ‘truth’ is not what actually happened but was a biased interpretations of events from the perspective of one side.

Why note this distinction between fact and historical fact? This film is doing its best to establish Wałęsa’s legacy as an unquestionably noble figure who did no wrong in his lifetime to achieve his goals and yet there is a challenge to such a perception of him nowadays. Recently Wałęsa has faced accussations of colluding with the Soviet government which he vehemently denies despite growing evidence to the contrary. In the closing minutes of the film we see his interrorgaters comment, to almost cartoonish effect, they will ‘get him later’. This moment works to make the audience also refute any later accusations of collusion they will hear including those currently being discussed in light of new evidence. After all who do we believe – the Soviet authorities who are well known to have used certain methods and obscured the reality of events often or this idealised man of the people?

Further to the cartoonishly villainous declaration of revenge we are given a brief summary, via text on the screen, relaying what occurred after the events depicted. One of these asserts that because of Wałęsa’s actions, and the rise of the Solidarity group, Poland led other Eastern Bloc nations towards rebelling against Soviet control and thus were key in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This film presented an oversimplification of historical events regarding the downfall of the Soviet Union in it’s closing moments by suggesting Wałęsa’s actions, singlehandedly, began the sequence of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. There were a great many other world events and internal problems within the Soviet union which led to its downfall so this film, as I have already mentioned, acts as propaganda attempting to secure the legacy of Wałęsa as one of the great historical figures in the history not just of Poland, which has been so hard fought for throughout the centuries by its citizens, but of the world.

He comes across as a historical figure not a man in this film. An image not a living person similar to how canonised saints are depicted. We have seen this time and time again in biopics which cherrypick what is depicted, how it is depicted and perhaps this is why I tend to avoid watching them because ultimately what we are watching is personality propaganda and not a fair account of the individual’s life. Rarely are such films a fair representation of what actually occurred let alone the unblemished, and sometimes unpalatable, truth. Often they instead iconise their subject either as hero or villain.

A caricature who is defined as representing some noble cause and whose example (of their mythos, not their reality) we should follow, is presented to the audience and we are asked to accept it blindly. There are too many examples of biopics being more fiction than fact but that is something to discuss another day. What is safe to say is that the actions of characters in the film must fit the narrative even if it warps the character of the real life person. Examples I can give off the top of my head are First Officer William Murdoch’s depiction in the 1997 film Titanic and of Vivian Liberto Cash in 2005’s Walk The Line both of whom were depicted negatively to enhance the focus narrative without thought to real world events.

Secondary to depictions of Wałęsa are those of the Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci, who is interviewing him as part of the film’s framing device. She is also somewhat of a caricature of the real life person and the choice for her to be used is itself indicative of Wadja’s intentions. Here she is depicted as the classic image all journalists wish to be seen as. Partisan yet invested. Distant yet intimate with their subject. Taking a stand against perceived injustices in the world yet never personally being involved (or indeed effected by it save, as journalist’s often do to create repore in hopes of exposing weakness in their subject, to express a few half hearted suggestions of sympathy – but never empathy). To be objective though they edit what they write and thus can never truly ignore their own experiences in life thus fostering an image which often overshadows the subject they cover. A journalist’s journalist.

The real life Fallaci often came into conflict with Muslims regarding her outspoken criticism of communities both in the East and West while she maintained an aloof air of superiority over them both. During her 1972 interview with Henry Kissinger, Kissinger stated that the Vietnam War was a “useless war” and compared himself to “the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse”. Kissinger later claimed that it was “the single most disastrous conversation I have ever had with any member of the press”. In 1973, she interviewed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. She later stated, “He considers women simply as graceful ornaments, incapable of thinking like a man, and then strives to give them complete equality of rights and duties”.

It is hard to suggest that this image isn’t based on one Oriana herself made every effort to enforce during her life through her actions, often intended to incite reaction, and not just Wadja trying to lend further credence to his biopic by using a respected real life journalist in the framing device. She, like any others, was more a journalist seeking glory and building her reputation through conflict than making a difference in the world through her work and reporting things people do not want to accept as reality. Despite the heavily doctored image she seemed to wish to portray of herself fault always lay outside the individual as was the case when she blamed her lung cancer on her stay in Kuwait in 1991 after Saddam Hussein had ordered troops to burn hundreds of oil well alone and not that she had been, by choice, a lifelong heavy smoker. And in this film the fault lay exclusively with the Soviets never with how people did not rise up and challenge them before Wałęsa ascension to, what this film is mythologising as, a figurehead.

Summary:
On many aspects of the film I can find no fault. The acting is impactful, the cinematography up to the standard you would expect of a world class director such as Andrzej Wajda (who sadly passed away 9 October 2016) and it really has the sense, if not the most accurate depiction, of the 1980s in Poland. It is solidly built but the message it wishes to express seems, as with any biographical work, to have a desire to frame events in a certain light and omit anything unseemly in order to create a streamlined mythological narrative about its subject – to create an icon rather than relate a flawed, but inspirational, subject.

My greatest critcism is that Andrzej Wajda considered Lech a personal friend and I feel that this caused him to not cast a critical eye upon his subject. This has led, in this love letter of a film to his freind, to the embellishment of a historical figure and securing of his legacy. It deminishes the moments of true opposition faced in order to secure the heroic, incontestable, historical mythos of Wałęsa. The reason people watch a biopic or read an (auto)biography is to see the person behind the facade but sadly, as is often the case, all we get is a re-enforcement of what was already presented to us elsewhere. If you want an introduction to the life and times of Wałęsa then this is good enough as a biased crib notes like starting point but don’t expect any insight into him or how the Soviet era effected Poland beyond trade union strikes.

If you are interested in the works of Andrzej Wajda, or depictions of Poland under Communist rule, I strongly recommend you go watch Wadja’s Man of Marble (Polish: Człowiek z marmuru) or its sequel Man of Iron (Polish: Człowiek z żelaza) which depict fictionalised characters’ experiences covering the events of the Solidarity movement. In these Wajda is less sentimental about his subject and can better present the moral ‘truth’ of events without concern for offending a friend as has sadly occurred with this biopic made far later in his career.

Москва слезам не верит / Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears (1980)

Москва слезам не верит a.k.a Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears
Russian Cinema Council Collection

Quoting the DVD case blurb [sic]: “An Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. This is a melodrama about life stories of three girls. Three friends Antonina, Liudmila and Yekaterina, come to Moscow in search of their dreams. Sharing a hostel room, the work and have fun together. Antonina soon marries a good man and settles down to raise a family. For Liudmila, Moscow is a sort of lottery, in which you have to pick a lucky ticket. She attempts to conquer this big city, but ends up a loser. The life of the third girl, Yekatrerina, is a contemporary Cinderella story. She had her share of disappointments, but did not despair. In twenty years she built up a career and became director of a big enterprise. A single parent of a daughter, she finally meets the right man and, after long and bitter years of loneliness, finds true happiness…”

So, in case you missed the awkward grammar, I am watching the official international release of the film from Russia and has subtitled done by a native Russian but English as second language speaker. There are one or two times during my copy where the subtitles are awkward. For example there’s one moment where a character remarks ‘We are like personages in a drama’ where the word ‘character’ would be more correct.I will use the translation provided by the DVD so some names like Lyudmila will be appear as Liudmila instead. Also although I refer to Katerina as Yekatrina this is apparently only present on the DVD case. All the signs suggest there seems to have been no proof reading or quality control during the DVD’s production sadly and I am sure it was rectified for later editions.

The film is set in two time periods: 1958, in the middle of the Khrushchev thaw,and 1979, in the middle of the era of stagnation. My DVD copy had two separate disks separating these time periods into two parts. I don’t know why but assume it is because it is a 1999 edition and dual layered discs were not yet commonly used at that point. It is a good breaking point but I don’t think the film had an intermission between these two parts originally.

The three main women represent the 3 stereotypes of women in Soviet Russia.

Antonina is the traditional girl – she marries early on into a secure home life to a husband who is deemed ‘nice by boring’ and has 3 sons.

Liudmila the ‘tart with a heart’ – she dates multiple men gambling on there being better prospects as long as you are willing to take a risk. Liudmila initially seems to have ‘won’ by marrying a sportsman but it is short lived as he is soon retired and borrowing money from her 7 years after their divorce – presumably with no children produced and her working in a dry cleaners looking for the next ‘win’.

Yekaterina is what society would like to believe in – A self sufficient, hard working and educated person who is a productive, successful, citizen overcoming her circumstances. A single mother who overcame difficulties through focusing on her studies in youth, worked hard for a very senior position in her company and was rewarded by the universe with a man who fulfils her. Arguably she is the most recognisable to western audiences as she represents the viewer’s wish fulfilment, common in films worldwide, though it should be noted the film, as part of this wish fulfilment, glosses over the day to day hardships she faced in those intervening 20 years during the time skip which were necessary for her to arrive at the position she is in during the second part.

Perhaps it is interesting to compare them with the men they end up with.

Antonina marries Nikolai early on and settles into a successful, if dull, marriage producing three sons. As Tolstoy said ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. They play little influence in events save to be a safe haven for Lyudmila, who has no one else reliable in her life, and Katerina who has been so career focused she has forsaken all else it seems initially.

Liudmila, ever the hegemonist flirt, marries Sergei Gurin who is a rising sports star believing, at the end of the first part, herself to have hit the jackpot she so often speaks of. However in the second half we find her living alone and he comes begging her to loan him more money – even going as far as becoming physical with her out of desperation. When he is at bars he is recognised and never has to buy his own drink but is left unfulfilled with the hope of becoming a coach now his own career is over. Liudmila continues to flirt with any prospective men – even becoming jealous of a general’s wife who she believes has ‘won the lottery’. She otherwise seems to live vicariously through Antonina, who has succeeded in building a family, and Katerina who has a successful career. This leaves her in the role of acting as a sort of eccentric ‘larger than life’ aunt to the children or at worst a warning to Alexandra of what she will become if she doesn’t begin to learn from her mother’s example of taking responsibility and working hard but continues to rely on others and luck.

Katerina has a relationship with Rodion, a TV camera man (often to be found reiterating his view that TV will replace cinema, theatre, books and newspapers) who after a brief tryst abandons her to raise their daughter by herself. He even has his mother go visit Katerina to tell her to stop harassing him to take responsibility (although it was Liudmila calling to help her friend who had resigned herself to fate). Years later he is sent to interview a senior executive and doesn’t recognise Katerina initially. He then meets with her wanting to see Alexandra but Katerina refuses telling him she has done well enough without him in her life. Towards the end he arrives, unannounced, to Katerina’s apartment and, in anger, she tells Alexandra he is her father. I actually found this story thread didn’t get resolved by the end so, with how Alexandra interacts with Gosha, it is no doubt implied she rejects Rodion. At the start of the second half she is also involved with a married man who is cowardly and so she abandons him soon after we rejoin her. The most important of her partners though is Gosha who she meets by chance on a train going home after visiting Antonina’s dacha. He is a staunchly traditional man but, unaware of Katerina’s successful career, begins a relationship with her often expounding how it is a man’s place to be head of the household. Needless to say he finds out he will not be the highest earner in the house and immediately takes flight, more so over having been lied to than a bruised ego (although it is easy to argue either way considering cultural differences). There is certainly a middle aged Cinderella aspect to her storyline during the second half of the film and how she serendipitously encounters him on the train home after the arranged meetings club fails to find her a match suiting her expectations.

In fact Alexandra could be said to serve as a sort of epilogue to the accumulated experiences of the central female characters. Initially when introduced she seems all but a copy of Liudmila by being self indulgent spending her time listening to music and being no where near as active as the older women were at her age. Instead she seems to be relying on others for her pleasures as did Liudmila by dating various young men and using the dorm’s telephone as her number. However we see her develop once Gosha is introduced. She recognises the earnest morality of Gosha who, unlike her mother, engages with her involving her in cooking and other household tasks. When she admits she doesn’t know how to cook, which is very likely with her career orientated mother, he offers to teach her. Thus she is willing to better herself – not relying on improving her prospects by marriage or fortunate but through doing things herself. When he, without a second thought, goes to aid her boyfriend who has been ganged up on by her former paramour she wants her mother to know but he insists there is no need as this is just what a man should do. She begins acknowledging the value in others – he proves he is who he has presented himself as even though some doubt might have been thrown by how many superlative plaudits his friends bestow on him at his birthday (which he invites the unaware Katerina and Alexandra to thinking it no big thing). He is good for her mother and she recognises this in him even if it means she will now be expected to contribute to the home. When Rodion is revealed as her father, having forced his way into her life and upset her mother, we don’t see her reaction in any significance but considering the final scene it may be implied that she sees Gosha as more of a father figure in that he, without want of compensation, does what he can to fulfil the role acting altruistically towards anyone who needs his help. She has learned the value of hard work but, as evidence by her having a boyfriend, society has moved on but some things remain the same through the generations. So the future seems bright – she is still learning but has a strong community of support around her.

Conclusion
It was very good but definitely is a film of its period. The subtitles, done by a Russian had one or two awkward translations – e.g. someone saying ‘we are like personages in a drama’ where we would say ‘characters in a drama’. The way it was filmed was very 70s and films made in Britain had a very similar look from that period. US President Ronald Reagan watched the film several times prior to his meetings with the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, in order to gain a better understanding of the “Russian soul”. I doubt he did as its such a hard concept to depict but certainly he would have seen its heart and that the world over people have similar hopes and dreams despite differences in language and culture.

I guess I have become used to older films being ‘remastered’ as my copy seemed a bit low quality despite being an official DVD from the Russian Cinema Council… But then it was a 1999 edition so maybe someone has improved the quality, in later released editions, since then as HD quality wasn’t a concern at the time.

What really stands out with the edition I have is the extras. Many of the main actors, the director, the scriptwriter and the composer are interviewed. There is a documentary about Moscow and photo galleries. The film comes with the original Russian dub but also a French and an English one. The subtitles come in Russian, English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Swedish, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese. Ironically though the back of the DVD states [sic] ‘Not for sale on the territory of the former USSR’ so it obviously is meant for the international not domestic market!

Aleksey Batalov (Алексей Владимирович Баталов) pretty much stole the show in the second half as Gosha. To put it in context his role is a Soviet version of the ‘manic pixie [boyfriend]’ trope as he seems all too perfect in his portrayal although he does have traditional views about being the man of the house. Such views were falling out of favour in their depiction in the west during the time of the film’s release but it has always been an element of wish fulfilment in romantic films that the female protagonist finds a man who can provide for her both emotionally and financially – so traditional values have never really gone out of fashion. The other characters I can easily imagine being in western films with little if any alteration so look out for that Hollywood remake (if one hasn’t already been made)!

This is one of the keystones of Russian cinema and an essential viewing experience for anyone interested in Russia, Soviet cinema or indeed world cinema. (Albeit I will add that this was filmed during more lenient times so those looking for a Stalinist era depiction, as is the common shorthand imagery used in western cinematic depictions *cough*Child44*cough* need to look elsewhere). The story is easy to follow and compelling. There are one or two moments of very brief nudity but it is very naive and a few moments of physical violence but nothing that wouldn’t be shown before the watershed (i.e. it is safe for all to watch). I highly recommend it.

Cast

Vera Alentova – Katerina Tikhomirova
Irina Muravyova – Lyudmila
Aleksey Batalov – Gosha
Raisa Ryazanova – Antonina
Aleksandr Fatyushin – Sergei Gurin
Boris Smorchkov – Nikolai
Viktor Uralsky – Nikolai’s Father
Valentina Ushakova – Nikolai’s Mother
Yuri Vasilyev – Rodion Rachkov
Yevgeniya Khanayeva – Rachkov’s Mother
Liya Akhedzhakova – Olga Pavlovna, Club’s Director
Zoya Fyodorova – Hostel’s Security
Natalya Vavilova – Alexandra
Oleg Tabakov – Vladimir, Katerina’s lover
Vladimir Basov – Anton Kruglov
Cameo appearances:
Andrei Voznesensky
Innokenty Smoktunovsky
Georgi Yumatov
Leonid Kharitonov
Tatyana Konyukhova
Pavel Rudakov and Veniamin Nechaev
Just as in Hollywood you might have someone like Bill Murray play a bit part in one scene as a cameo so you have the same here. I cannot say with authority in which scenes they appear but its safe to say many do so in the sequence where Katerina visits the ‘friendship agency’ in the second half where there is some humour about much older men wanting to be placed in the groups with women far too young for them.

Songs from the film

Bésame mucho


By Sergey Nikitin and Tatyana Nikitina:
Александра (Alexandra)

Диалог у новогодней елки (A dialogue by the New Year’s tree)

By Klavdiya Shulzhenko:
Давай закурим (Davai zakurim / “Lets take a smoke”)


Usually when I review films I go into some depth but I am trying to self edit a bit more nowadays. Hopefully this post is compelling enough though I feel I have left so much out.

I found Star Media on YouTube and it has many interesting Russia films and series on there so I may be watching quite a few of them. Any recommendations of good older films, which they will be more likely to have, are more than welcome 🙂