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.

No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter

The performance I attended was held on Saturday 3 September 2016 at The New Theatre, Cardiff.

No Man’s Land is an absurdist play by Harold Pinter written in 1974 and first produced and published in 1975. Its original production was at the Old Vic Theatre in London by the National Theatre on 23 April 1975, and it later transferred to Wyndhams Theatre, July 1975 – January 1976, the Lyttelton Theatre April– – May 1976, and New York October – –December, returning to the Lyttelton, January – –February 1977.

Setting

“A large room in a house in North West London” on a summer night and the following morning.”
Hirst is an alcoholic upper-class literature who lives in a grand house presumed to be in Hampstead, with Foster and Briggs, respectively his purported amanuensis and man servant (or apparent bodyguard), who may be lovers. Spooner, a “failed, down-at-heel poet” whom Hirst has “picked up in a Hampstead pub” and invited home for a drink, becomes Hirst’s house guest for the night; claiming to be a fellow poet, through a contest of at least-partly fantastic reminiscences, he appears to have known Hirst at university and to have shared mutual male and female acquaintances and relationships. The four characters are named after cricket players.

Cast

Patrick Stewart as Hirst, a man in his sixties
Ian McKellen as Spooner, a man in his sixties
Damien Molony as Foster, a man in his thirties
Owen Teale as Briggs, a man in his forties
Following their hit run on Broadway, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart return to the UK stage in Sean Mathias’ acclaimed production of No Man’s Land, one of the most brilliantly entertaining plays by Nobel Prize laureate Harold Pinter.

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Plot
“One summer’s evening, two ageing writers, Hirst and Spooner, meet in a Hampstead pub and continue their drinking into the night at Hirst’s stately house nearby. As the pair become increasingly inebriated, and their stories increasingly unbelievable, the lively conversation soon turns into a revealing power game, further complicated by the return home of two sinister younger men.”

Act 1

A man in his sixties named Hirst begins a night of heavy drinking (mainly Scotch) in his drawing room with an anonymous peer who he only just met at a pub. Hirst’s overly talkative guest, calling himself a poet, long-windedly explains how he is penetratingly perceptive, until he finally introduces himself as “Spooner”. As the men are becoming more intoxicated, Hirst suddenly rises and throws his glass, while Spooner abruptly taunts Hirst about his masculinity and wife. Hirst merely comments “No man’s land…does Not move…or Change…or Grow old…remains…forever…icy…silent”, Before collapsing twice and finally crawling out of the room.

A young man enters and suspiciously questions Spooner, who now becomes relatively silent, about his identity. The younger man introduces himself as John “Jack” Foster before the entrance of a fourth man, Briggs, who is in his forties and who also unsuccessfully questions Spooner and then bickers with Foster.

At last, Hirst re-enters, having slept, and struggles to remember a recent dream. Foster and Briggs have also started drinking, and they refill the older men’s glasses. Hirst mentions an album of photographs he keeps, commenting on the appearances of the people in the album. He does not appear to fully remember Spooner’s identity, insisting that his true friends are kept safely in the album. He begins drinking straight from the bottle, mutters incoherent statements, and continues to ponder his dream—involving someone drowning—when Spooner abruptly says that he was the one drowning in Hirst’s dream. Hirst drunkenly collapses and Spooner now rushes in to Hirst’s aid, brushing away the two younger men and claiming to be Hirst’s true friend. The younger pair becomes defensive and accusatory, asserting their obligation to protect Hirst against “men of evil”. Foster openly criticises his own past, as well as Hirst’s impulsiveness and alcoholism. It gradually becomes apparent that Foster is Hirst’s apprentice and housekeeper, and Briggs is Hirst’s personal servant. All exit except for Spooner and Foster, the latter of who says, “Listen. You know what it’s like when you’re in a room with the light on and then suddenly the light goes out? I’ll show you. It’s like this”. He flicks off the lights, causing a blackout.

Act 2

The next morning, Spooner, alone, stands from his chair and attempts to leave, but the door is locked. Briggs soon enters to deliver Spooner food and champagne, rambling on about how he met Foster and ignoring Spooner’s desire to know why the door was locked. Spooner thinks of a quick excuse to leave; however, when Briggs mentions that both Foster and Hirst are poets, Spooner show vague recognition of this fact.

Hirst himself bursts in and is delighted to see Spooner, whom he oddly mistakes for (or pretends) is an old friend. He speaks as though the two were Oxbridge classmates in the 1930s, which Spooner finally plays along with. Hirst and Spooner then bizarrely discuss scandalous romantic encounters they both had with the same women, leading to a series of increasingly questionable reminiscences, until finally Hirst is accused of having had an affair with Spooner’s own wife. All the while, Hirst refers to Briggs by a variety of inconsistent names and then launches into a rant about once-known faces in his photo album.

Spooner says that Foster, who now reappears, should have pursued his dream of being a poet, instead of working for Hirst. Spooner shows great interest in seeing Hirst’s photo album, but both Briggs and Foster discourage this. All four are now drinking champagne, and Foster, for his own pride and dignity’s sake, abruptly asserts that he desired to work in this house of his own choice, where he feels privileged to serve as famous a writer as Hirst. Suddenly, Spooner asks desperately that Hirst consider hiring him as well, verbosely praising his own work ethic and other virtues. After all this, Hirst merely replies “Let’s change the subject for the last time”. And after a pause worriedly asks “What have I said?” Foster explains definitively that Hirst’s statement means that he (Hirst) will never be able to change the subject ever again. Hirst thinks back to his youth, when he mistakenly thought he saw a drowned body in a lake. Spooner now comments, “No. You are in no man’s land. Which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.” Hirst responds “I’ll drink to that!” and the lights fade slowly to black.

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Production Design and Costume:

The safety curtain (well not the safety one but the scene setting one I’ve forgotten the name of) had imagery reminiscent of a dark, foreboding, forest and tattered edging so it didn’t meet the stage floor uniformally. Somehow due to the 2 or maybe three thin layers of gauze it had a 3D like effect.

no mans land stage layout.png

The single room setting of the performance has a semi-circular design, as if we were in the keep of a castle except the walls have a square glass brick effect (which seemed to be popular a few years ago or at least my local cinema and bingo hall use a similar effect) due tinged a dark turquoise. The floor has pale pine wooden slats following the semi circular design and a mat/rug with fleur de leis on it coloured deep turquoise and paler turquoise respectively. This carpeting is slightly off centre from the circular pattern of the floorboards as if to non-verbally indicate to the audience that things are not quite as simple and straight forward as they initially appear. To the rear, of centre to the left, is a window hidden behind heavy, dusty it seems, curtains obscuring any natural light entering the room despite the possibility of Hirst going out for his daily walk (which he refuses as it isn’t very light outside when he looks).

On the right is the single door on and off stage. A plain, varnished, wooden door. To the rear a well stocked bar with a cupboard in the bench hiding even more bottles. A few glasses are used during the performance as Hirst always needs another drink and often so do the others.

The room is sparsely furnitured. To either side are free standing lamps, the right of which has a small table with it. Three chairs populate the room. Two are simple wooden ones but the third, off centre to the left, is the most important. It is Hirst’s green Chesterfield chair which only he ever sits in as the master of the house. Next to it is a small side table which he places his whiskey glass upon. A trolley, with fold out wings and covered in a white sheet to make it a table, is used for Spooner’s breakfast at the start of the second half. It is wheeled in and abruptly out by Briggs.

Costume wise Hirst wears a navy three piece suit but for most of the first half this is replaced by a striped night gown. Spooner wears a dull great suit and in the second half for a brief time has on his Mac in readiness to leave. Foster and Briggs wear clothes in the style of the 1970s i.e. brown boots, leather jackets and bellbottom trousers. In the second half, with their roles as house staff revealed, Briggs wears a blue three piece suit, later discarding the jacket with his sleeves rolled up, and Foster reappears in the last few scenes in a pastel suit. In contrast to the Americanised version I have to immediately note Stewart didn’t have a wig during the performance I saw and I don’t think McKellen had a ponytail (and obviously the roles of Foster and Briggs were different actors).

Review:
The venue was sold out and it was the final night. As is often the case here when its sold out there was barely any room to move at the entrance as they put the programme selling stall at the bottom of the stairs which start right by the left side of the entrance doors. Across the small entrance way is the box office with one, maybe two, people able to serve through the small windows. Of course people queue here too and I haven’t accounted for the people standing around chatting idly having gotten themselves drinks from the bar. Saying that once you got up stairs there was more room, not much seating but that is to be expected due to the limited space.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the boxes were used for their original purpose of ‘being seen to be seen at the theatre’ thought they are renowned for their poor view of the stage. As it is they probably worked out cheaper than some of the stall seats for tonight’s performance.

The New Theatre used to be the premier location for stage plays in Cardiff but after the establishment of the Wales Millennium Centre it was quickly usurped and although still respectable it never regained this position. It’s heyday, during my life time, was probably around 1996 when Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter, directed his stage adaptation of Uncle Vanya transposing Chekov’s Uncle Vanya to a turn-of-the-century Welsh setting, emphasising the hardships of Welsh industrial life in the slate quarries and Welsh-English turmoil. Aside from the New Theatre and WMC Chapter Arts Centre, the Sherman Theatre and recently the Gates Art Centre have grown in prominence as venues for the arts in Cardiff.

The play itself I enjoyed but I think there is an important caveat to this: I knew what the meta-narrative of the play was regarding Pinter’s mindset when he wrote it and what it represented to him. What we see portrayed on the stage is not literal. Metaphor is heavily used in this play and the audience are hinted towards this reading when Spooner proclaims his joy at its use by Hirst in the first act.

Hirst is an old man at the end of his life consumed by memories which he cannot recollect with any accuracy. He often talks of a photo album he has and the faces in it yet he himself doesn’t recognise Spooner at the start and indeed we as an audience must ask if, when he does acknowledge him as a friend from his youth, if the conversation they are having is actually between old acquaintances or if Spooner is playing along and making up stuff which Hirst, being a braggard, pretends to remember but doesn’t. In fact we could ask if any of the characters, apart from Hirst, even do exist at all or perhaps speculate that they represent different aspects of himself – Foster as his young brash self who sees opportunities in the future and is very cocky; Briggs as his masculine side aggressive, objective and arrogant; Spooner as his poetic aspect and view of old age reflecting how, now at the end of his days, he thinks back to his youth but cannot recall it with accuracy and wants to ignore, if not outright dismiss, his old age from himself and instead ‘remembers’ someone drowning but can’t recall their face. Perhaps we take this as it is him seeing himself drowning metaphorically in life unable to escape from himself.

Of course there are many ways to read this play and that is, for the most part, intentional. It is however also its weakness as you must have some knowledge of Pinter, or at least writers of his generation, and how the use of language is multilayered with more than a single understanding. Waiting For Godot, by Samuel Beckett, (premiered on 5 January 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris) is perhaps the greatest example of this use of dialogue. Symbolism and metaphor are replete throughout the work and for an audience not prepared for this they may declare it pretentious as they are unprepared. If you have not watched a work like this before I think it wise to watch the film version of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (first staged in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) to see if this sort of play is to your liking. In fact it would be hard to deny the influence Beckett and Stoppard must have had on Pinter when you make comparisons.

It would be easy to see this play as a response to Waiting For Godot. There are parallels between Vladimir and Hirst contrasting that of Estragon and Spooner but in both pairs certain aspects are exchanged. Beckett, in a correspondence reflects that “Estragon is inert and Vladimir restless.” In a twist we see Hirst, who of the pair is the slightly better off as Vladimir is, is mostly sitting for much of the first act despite how spry he is in the second, and in contrast Spooner, a poet (just as Estragon should have been Vladimir comments) is very spry unlike Estragon who is mostly seen to be sitting or reclining. In Waitng For Godot it is Vladimir who is constantly reminding Estragon but here Spooner reminds Hirst. In the first stage production of Waiting For Godot, which Beckett oversaw, both are “more shabby-genteel than ragged…Vladimir At least is capable of being scandalised…on A matter of etiquette when Estragon begs for chicken bones or money.” In No Man’s Land Hirst is scandalised by Spooner’s accusations of youthful infidelity and, while eating his breakfast, Spooner uses the serviette as a bib instead of placing it on his lap (and indeed when putting his coat on forgets to remove it). There are many facets which could be explored in analysing the intertextuality of the pieces but that should be left for another time and place.

This is not a play of events but of moods. It is a dialogue about themes which often haunted Pinter throughout his career – most obviously those of memory and death. I highly recommend it but this is one of those occasions where you are better off knowing what happens so you can focus on the nuances of the actor’s performances. If I had a criticism of the one I attended it was the audience not knowing the tone. Some laughed at any point that might be potentially comedic, for example when Hirst collapses and then crawls out of the room, but these scenes could also be played very seriously (which I believe was the intent this night) so it seemed there was a dissonance between performance and audience on the night. Of course we must reflect that the line between a tragedy and comedy is a fine line. In tragedy we identify with them and their inability to prevent the course of events but in comedy we anticipate it and take joy in their suffering. I feel the play could easily be played to either extreme. Certainly McKellen was playing to the comedic angle while Stewart played a very serious figure and somehow, as hard as it might be to believe, they did not gel on stage although this may have been intentional due to the characters’ contrasting natures. As for Molony as Foster he played his role with much energy and easily interacted with McKellen who he has directed in other plays a number of times now. Teale as Briggs was suitably intimidating and stern. He did however remind me of Danny Dyer and, unsurprisingly, I discovered that Dyer had performed this role a few years ago in another production which lead me to question if Teale was imitating Dyer or if Dyer, by some fluke of nature, had discovered a role all but made for him he fit it so perfectly.

It was an excellent performance in every respect but the audience seemed to be at odds with the intended tone at times.

Outside the stage doors I didn’t see the autograph hunters who are always present at these things. There was an A4 printed sign in the stage door saying the cast would only be signing things to do with the production (i.e. Don’t you dare come here with things relating to Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Stella, etc). After the show the theatre manager, who for some reason was wearing a full white tie dinner suit, said no one could take selfies and you probably wouldn’t even get an autograph. Ian McKellen to his credit tried to sign as many autographs as possible as did Damien Molony and Owen Teale. Unfortunately Patrick Stewart had to rush off as he was about to miss his train though he did try to sign some brochures before leaving.

In summary: Go and see it as it is a classic of modern theatre but know what you are getting into regarding Pinter’s intent. Don’t just go because there are recognisable names otherwise you will be lost when you realise it isn’t going to be as straight forward as something you watch on television or in the cinema.



The Living and the Dead: Episode 4

Episode 4: “When a woman goes missing, Nathan must put his spiritual troubles aside to lead the rescue party. As he races to solve the mystery, Charlotte struggles with a secret of her own.”



Credits:
Nathan Appleby: Colin Morgan
Charlotte Appleby: Charlotte Spencer
Matthew Denning: Nicholas Woodeson
Gwen Pearce: Kerrie Hayes
Martha Enderby: Fiona O’Shaughnessy
Jack Langtree: Joel Gilman
Gideon Langtree: Malcolm Storry
Isiah Cobb: Adam Ewan
Alice Wharton: Gina Bramhill
William Payne: David Oakes
Maud Hare: Elizabeth Berrington
Lizzie Merrifield: Sarah Counsell
Lara: Chloe Pirrie
Writer: Robert Murphy
Producer: Eliza Mellor
Director: Sam Donovan


Victim of the episode:
Martha for being ‘different’. Jack for being a lovesick fool and because the creators believe the audience want karmic retribution making him pay for the previous episode. Alice the ghost girl who fell to her death or committed suicide while hysterical.


Synopsis:
Autumn 1894 – A woman in a red dress moves through a forest as if being chased. Nathan, in his office, uses a Ouija board to call on Clarity Winlove as he still wants to know if she blessed or cursed Charlotte’s womb. The red dress woman calls out asking if someone is there. Scene duality for the win yo. Nathan is getting no results himself though. The woman gets captured suddenly. Charlotte is back from her apple foraging calls on him. Once he is gone the Ouiji board begins to move. and ‘Daddy’ is written on the mirror. DUN DUN DURR.

The hay wagon has been tampered with leaving the sacks spilt on the ground. Reverend Denning came to check on Nathan and notes the Ouija board on his desk. They discuss the fashion for spiritualism which he sees as a malaise and covering the grief of bereavement. Nathan asks him his view as his reverend. Transgressing against man and nature. Jack Langtree is suspected of being the saboteur.

Miss Martha Enderby, the red dressed woman, appears and is the school marm we are told. If you have been watching can you honestly say you say the actress in any of the community gathering scenes in the past episodes? I can’t personally. She is clearly in shock so Nathan offers her a stiff drink and Denning asks her if she remembered anything. She remembers nothing of course as she is still in shock. She speculates maybe if she got back there… then remembers Jack Langtree attacked her… but it also wasn’t him at the same time. Almost as if he were possessed.

Later Nathan speculates she is blocking out something traumatic and wants to take her back into the forest in order to go after Jack. Charlotte protests but Martha agrees as ‘Jack Langtree is dangerous’.

Nathan asks if Jack forced himself on her which seems a logical enquiry considering her behaviour. They then look for where Jack attacked her.

Charlotte goes looking around the silent house and hears a baby’s cry. She then vomits in a bowl as Gwen turns up. Pregnant marm? Pregnant marm… Let Gwen hold your hair there marm while you chunder marm…

Nathan asks Martha to recall things and Martha speaks of a girl Alice she was educating. ( For those who remember the song: all together now! ‘Alice? Alice? Who the F*** is Alice?’) Jack was living and poaching there. Alice was going to elope with him so Martha was hoping to warn her off. (she has split personality and the grabbing at the start was of lovers i bet). she challenges him saying people think Nathan is raising the dead but she thinks he is a good man. They see smoke coming from nearby.

Gwen makes a drink to stop Charlotte vomiting. Chalotte wonders whats in it and Gwen says ‘what you don’t know wont hurt you’. HEDGE WITCH COMING TO THE RESCUE. Charlotte reflects on matters again and ‘hope is better than no hope’. She asks Gwen about he sound of the baby asking if maybe a worker brough a baby in. Gwen says she doesn’t know. ITS FORESHADOWING. NATHAN ISN’T THE ONLY ONE GETTING GHOST ENCOUNTERS… but later in the series she refuses to believe him which in hindsight makes it seem like a severe plot contrivance considering what happened here.

Nathan and Martha find a still smouldering camp site by the mouth of a cave. Nathan calls for Jack but there is no response so he goes to investigate. Martha sees it as Alice’s room and asks what he’s done to her? She runs for air looking around the upper levels of the trees when a pale, blonde, ghost girl appears nearby whom she identifies as Alice. Nathan goes to approach her but Martha shouts ‘No!’. (She’s a ghost then I guess.) Martha wants to leave this place. Nathan points her in the direction of his house and tells her to inform his wife. Martha says Alice isn’t the secret flower of the forest. No because that’s an unsubtle metaphor for the vagina… because you know… lesbianism symbolism. Nathan tells her he will bring her home safely.

Charlotte rides a horse to Mr Payne’s stately looking home. He is handsome. He has llamas. You know at some point he is going to be involved in some sort of temptation storyline with Charlotte as the, at the moment, happily married woman. They have banter but she is here to ask a favour. She needs his wagons. He agrees to it. (I bet he sabotaged them).

Nathan is still chasing Alice though the woods. He comes to a narrow path between tall rocks and finds Alice collapsed there… turning her over he sees she is a corpse. DUN DUN DURR!

Charlotte arrives home on her horse but seems weary of something. She enters and calls for Gwen. (Gwen’s been hiding a baby unless DUN DUN DURR its foreshadowing about the modern-day matters being hinted at heavily). Martha is sat in front of the fire. She considers it ‘all her fault’. Alice was going to elope with Jack and she lost her temper and went too far. When she went back to apologise Alice was gone. Believes she would have overcome her infatuation with Jack if she hadn’t intervened. Nathan checks the corpse and sees blood on the nearby moss. As Martha tells Charlotte more of Alice Nathan brings the corpse back through the forest.

Jack is wandering through the forest himself looking remorseful for how things have turned out.

Charlotte believes people wouldn’t accept a friendship between a school teacher and a simple lady. she views the area as backwards, even medieval, then apologises for saying such. MORE OF THE MAIN CHARACTERS BIGOTTRY. LETS HOPE THERE ARE NO EPISODES ON THE HORIZON WHERE WE ARE MEANT TO BE SYMPATHETIC. In reality, is such a small community, they would have. Oh except maybe this was the creator’s attempt at using ‘friendship’ as a euphemism for lesbianism – in which case I think you would find even modern urban societies would also at that time not look favourably towards their ‘friendship’. This is some bad writing.

Mr Payne arrives so Charlotte goes to greet him. Nathan arrives with the corpse of Alice. Like a cat that’s gone hunting. Alice was one of Mr Payne’s workers. Nathan asks for his help to apprehend Jack Langtree to which he agrees. Martha uncovers the body and sees the corpse of her friend. She and Nathan look at each other and he has Gwen take Martha back in the house. Charlotte questions him but Nathan asks she do as he asks. Be a good wife – love, honour and obey – just like you were so sycophantically willing to do in the first two episodes.

He inspects Alice’s corpse in a candle lit room while making written notes playing at being a proto-forensic investigator. Martha is staying with them and is shocked by the appearance of Alice’s ghost in the window.
Nathan later that evening declares to Martha and Charlotte he believes Alice was murdered that morning and discusses seeing her spirit. Martha denies seeing the ghost of Alice earlier suggesting he imagined it when he was there with her. He grabs her arm aggressively and asks what she is playing at then begins to shout at her claiming she is lying. Charlotte gets between them and apologizes for his behaviour. HIS FAITH IN SCIENCE IS BEING SHAKEN AND IT ONLY TOOK 4 SEPERATE GHOST ENCOUNTERS.

Nathan and Charlotte go into the corridor and she believes he has been in his study too long. Then the title of the series comes up as he is focused on the dead and she wants him to focus on the living. DRAMATIC DENOUEMENT – PLAY THE THEME TUNE!!! He then tells her about seeing the healer Miss Winlove’s ghost and needing to know if it was a blessing or a curse placed on Charlotte. She says she has given him everything she has but he has abandoned her.

He hears tinny voices and goes rushing to his study. He sees an electronic tablet speaking but it disappears and he doesn’t know what to make of it. I should note now they clearly indicate it is an iPad in a later episode by name in case you thought the BBC never do product placement. That is a hell of a strong back light on it considering how it lights things up.

The next morning he rushes outside to his horse as Charlotte comes outside to see him riding into the distance. Martha, inside, hears noises coming from an adjoining room to her’s. The door handle rattles. She opens the door and see the silhouette of Alice which then comes screaming towards her in a very goofy way. FORESHADOWING.

Cut to reverend Denning giving a sermon and children placing harvest festival offerings in a pile at the altar. TRAILER SHOT.

Jack is hiding under a tree from the mob hunting him down with rifles in hand. TRAILER SHOT. They find him and he runs away from them. Payne and a few of his workers arrive brandishing rifles. Payne spots Jack running in the distance and raises his weapon. However Nathan catches Payne just in time and calls him out on his conduct. Payne claims he wasn’t going to kill him and Nathan says he wants Jack alive. OH IS PAYNE BEING HEAVYHANDEDLY MARKED OUT AS AN ANTAGONIST? I THINK SO!

Gwen lock and loads a rifle saying if Jack Langtree comes their way he’ll have her to deal with. She also locked Martha’s door when Charlotte asks where Miss Enderby is.

Nathan chases Jack. Others appear with rifles. Nathan catches up to him. Jack thinks its Nathan causing the curse and persecuting him for all his ills. He considered Alice his angel who was going to save him. Nathan tells Jack he wants him to return for a fair hearing. Jack just wants him to bring her back. He’s seen him raise the dead and asked him to do it again. Nathan says he is ‘just a man, no more, no more’. So Jack throws himself off those same high stones that Alice did and dies.

Charlotte wants entry to Martha’s room but she just wants to be alone.

Payne asks if he wasnt guilty of murder why did he run? Nathan finds a book on Jack.

Charlotte moves a table from barricading the door. Chalotte tells her she believes Nathan saw something and asks why Martha lied and denied seeing it.

Nathan reads the book and Martha also recites the lines. ‘my love is like a red red rose… until the seas run dry. To my secret flower of the forest, love Martha’.

GET IT? SHE WAS A LESBIAN ALL ALONG! JACK LOVED ALICE. ALICE LOVED JACK. MARTHA LOVED ALICE BUT ALICE WASN’T A LESBIAN! MARTHA WAS AN OBSESSIVE LESBIAN STALKER, WHOSE LOVE WASN’T RECIPROCATED, ALL ALONG! WOOOOOOOOOOOO SPOOKY! SPINE TINGLING HORROR! HOPE YOU CAN SLEEP TONIGHT!

Jack loved Alice as did Martha. Martha always felt alone until she realised she loved Alice with all her heart. Then she sees the ghost of Alice saying if she loved her she wouldn’t have done this to her.

Nathan runs home as Martha monologues about how she was ignored because she was different. She then begins to choke Charlotte claiming to love her (Alice) challenging her why she laughed at her. She is delusional. Charlotte is choking. Nathan arrives and runs up the stairs. Gwen has already shot Martha dead and remains stood over the corpse pointing the rifle at it. Where was she earlier? We always see her literally at Charlotte’s right hand so it seems a plot contrivance she was absent without reason in order for Charlotte to get in trouble.

Field workers carry Jack’s body out for burial as the others ask where it will end as another of them is dead and he replies he doesn’t know.

Denning, in the church, approaches the altar and sees all the harvest offerings have gone mouldy and rotten. DUN DUN DURR (Actually this is a good bit of foreshadowing for the next episode in fairness).

Police take Martha away in a horse and carriage. How genteel for an attempted murder. Payne also departs after being thanked for playing his part. Nathan goes back inside to Charlotte. Martha murdered Alice with no possession or demon. It was because of passion and folly he claims. Human weakness. Charlotte says she can not remain here. She tried to kill her. He says he will protect her. He Loves her. But can he protect their child she asks. He is happy she is pregnant. It was everything they wanted and why they came here so nothing else matters but this. ‘the past is dead and the dead are dead. there is only us three’. and they embrace smiling. But we see him look pensively when she is unable to see his face.

STINGER CLIFFHANGER TIME. A modern car with the red coated woman pulls up to the house and she takes a baby asking ‘do you want to go inside?’ GET IT? THAT’S WHERE THE BABY  NOISE CHARLOTTE HEARD WAS COMING FROM.



Review:

A bit awkward of an episode. A modern audience is meant to take it as Martha was a lesbian but the problem is that women of that era had far more intimate friendships than nowadays. If you look at the story Carmilla by Sheridan Le Farnu nothing in it was lesbian in tone for the era but in contrast to today it certainly seems overly intimate but was normal at the time especially for middle or upper class young women.

Mr Payne just seems to be suddenly introduced here. I appreciate we don’t have to be shown every aspect of the Applebys’ arrival in the town in episode 1 but considering what we are shown you would think some reference to him would be made prior to the very sudden ‘we need help from someone (but someone who is equal to us not the workers who are portrayed as a sheep like rabble)’ moment in this episode.

Alice has little character development so her death seems little more than a weak narrative device. An object acted upon. What made her so appealing to Martha and Jack we never really get explained. She was inquisitive and wanted to learn. That is the motivation for protecting a youth not eloping with a lover.

So did Jack vandalise the wagons? I’m not sure if that little mystery is resolved or not.

When did Jack, or others, see Nathan raise the dead? It is mentioned a few times during the series and the only people you could argue he did that to was Peter and there were very few people present.

Really the time frame of this series seems to be about one episode per 2 months of them living there due to the passage from harvest to raining winter time imagery by the end of the series.

The image of Gwen as loyal servant is fine. People ‘knew their place’ as part of the class system. I take issue with the image of Gwen stood over Matha’s corpse though. It implies we are meant to see Gwen as badass or a strong woman in comparison to the other women this episode. What I see though is a clear glorification of violence. When did Gwen, a house based servant, learn how to use a rifle? We are never told and it neither came up before or after yet she seems to handle it like an expert. Was shooting Martha a reasonable response to seeing Charlotte being choked? Couldn’t she had instead struck her at the back of the head to knock her out (which still might seem severe but at least would leave Martha alive). No. No can’t be having any of that. Lesbians are degenerate. Might infect the other women folk. Death to her it is. So add hints of homophobia to the anti-intellectualism before. ‘Oh but that’s how people were back then’…. No. This series is presenting a very stereotyped view of the era and it seems minimal research was done concerning the issues of each episode. They are showing the worst of society each time and it makes the entire matter disagreeable in tone and execution.

The sudden turn of Charlotte from being loving , doting, wife to critical skeptic is too sharp. If they had done a better job of indicating her increasing disquiet I could accept it but it seems that the denouement before the ‘real’ story of the series begins is presented in a very heavyhanded manner making it seem forced rather than a gradual creeping development in the series. This goes even more so for how easily the workers leave the town. Many of them would have lived and worked in this community since birth so would know nothing of the next community over let alone have the drive or savings to abandon their homestead.

It’s a very heavy handedly written episode and it does a severe disservice to the story regarding Martha, Jack and Alice’s love triangle. There was potential there, especially in addressing the view of lesbianism in that era, but it is discarding in one of the most blunt ‘DRAMABOMB’ style sudden shifts in dramatic tone between its leads I have seen in recent history without it intended to be a shock. To me this is the turning point in the series where it tries to be far more clever than it is and its only downhill from here. What at first seemed like it would be an interesting series about science versus superstition – in regards to whether the ghosts are real or unclassified psychological issues – but decided melodrama is more important than consistency. If anything I feel this series is a veiled contempt for people who are not ‘normal’ under the guise of ‘oh but its set in the past and its that generations view of it’ when it often wouldn’t have been in reality. I will cover each episodes ‘people of hate’ in a round-up review in a few weeks hence why I explicitly note the ‘victims of the week’ with each entry. The series seems to want to deal with social issues but if so a lot of it’s topics are at least a decade too late.


The BBC seem to be uploading promotional images and such to the official site a few weeks behind airing the episodes on BBC1 which is annoying as I cannot post images of the episode I am reviewing in each post. Obviously they are preparing for the international market and are behind schedule. Fortunately I can return and add the appropriate image later but it is a shame for anyone who wants immediate reviews in the days following the episodes broadcast.

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Elena [2011 Russian Film a.k.a Елена]

The BBC’s description on iPlayer: “Drama in which a Moscow housewife and former nurse must take desperate measures to save an inheritance and solve all her family’s money worries.”

That is quite misleading and influences your perception of the film. Suffice to say I took quite a different reading of the narrative.

Elena (Russian: Елена) is a 2011 Russian drama film directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize.

At the core of the film is the interaction, or lack thereof, between Elena, a former nurse, and Vladimir her husband who can afford to live in a ‘good’ apartment area due to his earnings but refuses to subsidise his in-laws despite Elena’s pleading. he has a daughter, Katya, from a previous marriage/relationship, who he hasn’t seen in a while, is unemployed, ‘turned out like her mother only interested in life’s pleasures. A goddamn hedonist’ and yet whom he dotes on so, its implied, she has a good standard of living with few if any responsibilities.

In contrast Elena,from a previous marriage or at least relationship, has a grown son named Sergei who lives in a much poorer area where there are gangs of young men and graffiti on the interior walls of the apartment building’s stairwells. His wife is named Tanya and the couple have two children. Sasha who is of school leaver’s age and faces the choice between the statutory armed forces enlistment (which is common in a few countries) or going to university which the family cannot afford. Elena often tells Vladimir that Sasha has health concerns and wants him to provide the money for the boy’s tuition costs. The is the central concern of the film as Vladimir refuses seeing the army as a good option. There is also a baby who I missed the name of but only seems to exit to reinforce the idea Sergei cannot afford to provide for his family as its yet another mouth to feed.


Here follow the notes I made while watching the film with a few additions. The important bits I will highlight. If you want the overall review just scroll further down. Nothing particularly humourous but, if like me, you want to know what happens in some films you will rarely find any reasonable synopsis on Wikipedia. So while this may seem cumbersome it’s probably one of the rare times you will see any significant account of the movie’s events. Go see the film for yourself as reading this doesn’t do the narrative justice and is just here in case you feel you missed something after viewing it.


The film begins by holding on a static image of outside the couple’s apartment for what seems like an eternity and a crow flies onto a branch. This holds far too long.
Elena dresses older than she seems. She is a grandmother though. This is how women in the mid twentieth century dressed not modern times.


Sergei’s son, Sasha, looks far older than he probably is. Hard life asking for money from your mother. (I’m not sure it’s ever mentioned he has a job throughout the film).
Sparse use of music throughout. This makes it more effective compared to the never-ending dirge you usually get in film scores. I’m reminded of the previews of Batman and Robin where they bragged about how there was only 5 minutes in the entire film where there wasn’t music.


(When someone points something like that out to you it becomes all-encompassing to the point other aspects get ignored. I don’t remember if the 5 minutes was during an important scene. I would assume so.)


Money concerns – will Sasha, the grandson, go to university or into the army? No one seems particularly bothered either way as they don’t mention making an effort to get the money for themselves or that they barely have enough money for basic amenities.


Elena and Vladimir sleep in separate bedrooms. he watches tv, she listens to another while doing small household tasks. Theme seems to be that everyone is living separate lives though everyone is in the same family. Here and at the end we over hear the television programme and perhaps its meant to offer a meta-narrative discussing the desire for self-improvement. Perhaps its being hinted Elena got involved with Vladimir because she thought it meant she would have a better life but, just like this aspiration programme, its empty promises and the reality is far more harsh.


She and Vladimir even use different mirrors. She uses a vanity table at the start when preparing for the day and he uses a bathroom one 24 minutes into the film.


Vladimir is the patriarch though doesn’t spend time with his in-laws i.e. Elena’s family. He calls Sergei her son so obviously never connected with them. Vladimir doesn’t want to pay for Sasha’s education and considers the army ‘the best school there is’. He sees Sergei as lazy for not being able, or perhaps willing, to provide for his own family. Nor does Vladimir care for Sasha’s health. He isn’t by blood their grandfather. He has a daughter and clearly doesn’t deny her anything. (We never even get the impression he has met Sergei or his family at all).


Vlad and Elena chat. She says she needs the money by the 20th. He says will give his answer in a week. There is a clear power divide between the two. Also as he uses the term ‘hedonist’ and she doesn’t understand the word so he is also implied to be far better educated than her. she does house cleaning. he will go to the gym. there is tension between them. is a blunt kind of person. no romance just grabs her wrist and says ‘come with me’ in order to initiate intimacy in the bedroom. Everything has its place. She giggles so it’s not against her will but certainly he clearly isn’t someone who takes no as an answer. Their home is a very sparse coldly designed apartment of stark edges etc very art deco but with pine and khaki tones. In contrast Sergei’s apartment is cramped and ‘make do’.


When leaving she gives Vladimir his bag but there is no thanks, good-bye or kiss. He just leaves and gets into his quite expensive looking German AUDI car. This is not a man lacking money. She is not so much a wife as an indentured slave it seems. He listens to classic music as he leaves the multi-story car park. Then changes it to soft rock. A moment later and he has to wait as a line of overall wearing workmen cross the road before him. A car honks behind him… then another long drawn out scene looking at him as he drives to what looks like a docklands area. Soft classical music in the background. It’s the afternoon already. He is at the gym. It seems very exclusive as it provides him with towels before he goes on a track machine. H checks out a young woman on another machine then goes to the water cooler and checks her out again before heading to the swimming pool. He is very isolated as the only person swimming. Yet another drawn out sequence of his swimming a length or two in silence. No one else is around to speak to. Suddenly he has a heart attack and is face down floating in the pool but the lifeguard is reading a magazine and doesn’t immediately notice.


Elena is giving money to someone for a delivery of groceries. she accesses the desk safe and puts documents in it before sorting out the groceries. The phone rings. She is told Vladimir is in hospital. We see a nurse having just finished attending to him as Elena enters. He coughs. He recounts it’s exactly how they met 10 years ago when she was a nurse and he had appendicitis. He wishes he could wake up back then. He jokingly says the girls at the hospital don’t look bad. The doctor and nurse arrive so Elena leaves. He asks her to call his daughter Katya. she does immediately. she tells her Vladimir wants to see her. Katya says not today, tomorrow. Elena wants to meet first though and so in the next scene they meet for coffee.


They meet in a cafe. Katya has a padded coat with her hood up and sunglasses on. She is clearly more well off that Elena or her family.


Elena addresses her as Katya while Katya greets her with ‘hello Elena Analtoievna which immediately shows the animosity she has towards Elena veiled as respect. It is the ‘proper’ way to address older people and was the common mode of address if you ever read the classics of Russian literature where everyone is addressed by their given and patronymic names except those who are close and use diminutives. Katya is indicating they are not familiar in her use of language while, by insisting on calling her Katya is trying to force familiarity. (It might not come across as blatantly obvious this is the situation but I thought the subtitles did a good job of indicating the relationship between them without deviating from the spoken dialogue). Elena tells her of the heart attack and that Vladimir is weak. Katya says dryly he has probably felt his way through all the nurses already. She seems unconcerned by her father’s ailment as it’s probably something that has occurred before. Elena asks her ro go easy on him. Katya begins to smoke after refusing the offer of anything to drink. She is not her for pleasure.


Elena says he needs love and asks Katya to show him that. Katya and Vladimir see each other rarely apparently though Elena doesn’t understand why but says it’s not her business. Katya agrees – its not her business.


Katya never calls him but Elena thinks she should. Katya feels Elena is blaming her, the prodigal daughter, for the lack of contact. Heart attack. Vladimir obviously was as intense with her as he has been with Elena. Katya accuses her of playing the worried wife and congratulates her on it sarcastically. Elena tells her she loves Vladimir. Katya doesn’t deny the relationship is no doubt ‘until death do they part’ but Elena is trying to cure him and by extension Katya. Katya says she doesn’t need Elena’s treatment ‘I am what I am’. She is like her father – unfailingly stubborn and self-assured. Elena asks if she is not sorry for her father, not at all? Though it maybe rhetorical Katya answers. ‘I dont give a flying fuck’. Elena thinks maybe it’s not such a good idea Katya see him today. She says maybe its best only when he is better. In spite Katya comments ‘then why not tell me only when he is better?’ then asks which room ‘papa’ is in.


Elena, in a sudden cut is at a church and the receptionist asks her to cover her head in the house of the lord. This is common practise in Eastern Orthodox churches of course so it is perhaps notable that Elena doesn’t do this automatically. Elena asks which saint she should light a candle in prayer to for her husband. A prayer for health she is told which the priest will pray for during the service and place a candle before saint Nicholas and the mother of God. she asks where those icons are. so clearly she is not a very religious person but is going through the motions… she goes to do it and prays making a sign of the cross. Is this truly out of desperation or is she playing the role of the good wife?


Back at the hospital what to me seems a pivotal scene occurs. If this scene was omitted then Elena would be unquestionably a protagonist but with this scene we question the morality we have seen her so earnestly ‘acting as the good wife’ Katya mocked her as.



Vlad is still in the bed with Katya having poured herself a drink and drained the glass. She has on a long white coat draped over her shoulders in the Mediterranean style like a catalogue model. She stands at the window seeming as though she is only here out of obligation.


Vlad says ‘[he] doesn’t see [her] much these days. She mocks that ‘[he] only saying this because [she] is stood by the window’. ‘Not in that sense’ he retorts. ‘There is no sense’ she rebutted. He mocks when he looks at her ‘maybe that is true’ and she replies ‘maybe then its a good thing [he] doesn’t see [her] so much then’. She goes to his bedside and tells him that she was ‘never his reason to live’. ‘And thank God as they say’ she adds sarcastically.


He tells her she is wrong but she adds that ‘money has always been [his] only reason for living’. He asks if she is ‘tallying up [his] life’ telling her ‘[money] is important to [her] too’. Though she denies it. He says ‘probably because [she] has never had to earn it [her]self’. ‘Maybe because [he] spoilt [her] she retorts giving her everything on a plate which he takes a s a compliment.


‘You know I love you, keep it coming’ she replies smiling/smirking. This is how they interact so it seems confrontational but is normal for them.


He ‘doesn’t know what [she] is making him pay for’. She mocks ‘[he] is priceless’. He ‘doesn’t know why [she] plays these word games’. “Games help children come to terms with the cruel laws of reality’ she says. Children is the word he picks up on. She says she isn’t pregnant. ‘Too bad’ he answers as it would ‘sort her out’. she says she is sorted – ‘alcohol and drugs only on the weekend. It’s clean living now’ although, she adds, she is ‘still getting sex and drugs under control… but im working on it, trust me’.


she unshoulders one side of the coat onto the chair she is sat on. he asks if she is smoking in the hospital. she asks ‘why, [he] paid for a big suite (private room) and does what [he] likes. he asks if she is serious so she takes the coat off and declares she will go to smoke where she is allowed. he asks her to hold on and asks where she got this [attitude] from?
“Genes, Dad, Heritage, A rotten seed. We’re all bad seeds. Subhuman.” he tells her to go have some babies as maybe they will turn out differently. She informs him ‘there is no such thing as different nor do[es she] feel like experimenting. its painful, expensive and pointless’. he tells her ‘everything with [her] is pointless’, and that, ‘those are stupid points to avoid that responsibility’. she tells him ‘it’s irresponsible to produce offspring who will be sick and doomed when the parents themselves are too. Doing it because everyone else does, because there is ‘some higher meaning’ to it all which is not ours to comprehend since we are just its executors. She indicates that by that logic ‘shit must be tasty as millions of flies can’t be wrong’. ‘And’, she adds, ‘in case [he] hadn’t heard the world might end soon’ mockingly.


he laughs and says ‘its strange but [he] feels better listening to her’. she tells him ‘that’s exactly why you breed – to suck the life from your children by asking questions like ‘where does this all come from”. he laughs. saying ‘[she] is a twit sometimes’. she smiles laughing and thanks him embarrassed slightly.


He tells her he loves her very much and offers her his hand which she asks if ‘we can do without’ but he insists. she mocks ‘what one won’t do for money’ they tease each other and he has her kiss him. they both smile embrace to kiss and are happy.


Critically here Katya has declared one of the aspects of Vladimir’s morality which he must have held in his earlier years but has set aside in old age. it feels as if she is mockingly quoting back to him his own sagely advice from her childhood. Why have children when the parents themselves are wretched? Could we not consider Sergei’s family to be such people? An adult son who cannot take care of his own family and seems to be relying on his mother to get him funds so his son, who he cannot provide for, can avoid the responsibility of being enlisted as he is clearly not fit to enter higher academia under his own steam? During the conversation they mention money but it never a case of her asking for it or what amount. It could be interpreted that they use money as a substitute for love but her it seems more plausible that although Vladimir clearly does give her money and she has a dry sense of humour they do care for each other but prefer to maintain a distance emotionally because ‘its easier’. Although during the film Vladimir notes he doesn’t see Katya often it is not said with any negative context and he doesn’t express a wish to see her more often. Physical distance allows they to have their own space but in direct contrast we have Elena who gets on a bus, regularly it seems, and visits Sergei’s family in their cramped apartment. This is not a case of ‘the haves’ versus the ‘have nots’ but rather two lifestyles which contrast so immensely we end up asking how things ever worked between Vladimir and Elena since they have such differing views on life. Just because Vladimir hasn’t seen Katya recently it doesn’t mean neither party cares any less for the other but as we view the majority of the film from Elena’s perspective and she ascribed to the socially dominant view if not narrative tradition that a ‘good’ family member should provide freely for another and be in regular contact with the others then a more passive viewer will immediately see this entire exchange as Katya’s empty gesturing in order to ensure her money provisions are secured.


However look at how she dresses as it tells us more about Katya’s perspective than anyone else’s clothing. Meeting Elena she has a heavy dark coloured padded coat, sunglasses (which a more negative interpretation might take as her hiding her real intent or having a hangover hence why she couldn’t go the previous day to see Vladimir), smokes in Elena’s face without acknowledgement and refuses the offer of a drink. Everything screams ‘closed body language’ and a desire to not engage with Elena even before she speaks. With her father she wears light colours, her jacket is draped over her shoulders and later removed, she drinks an entire glass of water, smokes at a distance moving to leave the room and even when offering mild protest and resistant she complies with her father’s requests and feels at ease talking and joking. You could argue that everything with Katya is a facade I suppose but the funeral scene later seems to weigh the perception to a more positive, if not slightly tragic, view of her.


A baby on a bed with a mobile phone. Elena is caring for her son’s baby while everyone is out working presumably. She jokes about it phoning its mama. she picks it up and they go to the kitchen to watch sparrows out the window. This scene is mirrored at the end.
Next Elena is collecting Vlad who is leaving the hospital and is told to observe his medication schedule carefully, that diet is critical and to do nothing stressful. the doctor recommends hiring a qualified carer but Elena says she worked in a hospital for years caring for people and the doctor says ‘perfect’.


We then have an extended scene of the young nurse from earlier changing the duvet covers and such on Vlad’s former bed, tidying the room and opening the window. Was there a point? Maybe to prepare us for what Elena will be doing as Vlad’s carer and what she had been doing throughout the time she has known him.


Vlad watchs the tv sports in silence. She watches tv in a separate room. She goes to check on him, puts the television off and closes the curtains as he is asleep.
The next morning she serves him breakfast in bed. There is silence. He has something to tell her but she reminds him to take his pills first. He has decided to write a will. She admits it makes her uncomfortable. He says its important and the right thing to do as everyone wonders what will happen when he is gone.


He says ‘the only people [he] has in the world are her and his daughter’. His daughter will inherit almost everything and she as his spouse (so they are married!) will receive a life-annuity. he comments he built it up so long and shot it out in ten seconds once he got to it. He asks if there is something she wanted to say. She hesitates and says yes but not concerning what he was talking about as it seems the right time. It’s about Sasha.


He says her son, Sergei, should be taking care of his own son. she is disappointed. He asks what were they thinking when having him. (So we see what Katya said earlier is either influencing his own mind now or he is only now expressing why he will not pay for the boy’s education). ‘Something happened. An accident. Twice!’ Vlad mocks. She scolds him it’s no laughing matter. He challenges that both children were accidents and now he is expected to feed them.


He says it’s not the money that bothers him and she says ‘of course not… you give it all to your thoughtless daughter’. Apparently this is a conversation they have had many times about the inheritance/money. He says not all of it and that she is sensible but Elena doesn’t know her. Its clear the two sides of the family never integrated well. Elena considers her ‘thoughtless and derailed’ but he doesnt want to hear it. She adds ‘and apparently infertile’. (cultural / generational values dissonance). he says that’s foolish, it’s just she isn’t like he and Elena. She says ‘of course’ sarcastically. She is nothing like her son and his family. (a class barrier between his upper middle class life and her working class family). He agrees and she is exaggerates saying ‘oh God’ yet again. (she seems to call on God often but as seen earlier is not a regular attendee of church so it is just a phrase to her with no meaning).


She asks him what gives him the right to think he is special – because he has more money, more things – it can all change. How he asks. ” the last shall be the first” she quotes which he comments are biblical fairy tales ‘…for the poor and foolish’. ‘Quality and fraternity are only to be found in your Heavenly Kingdom, Elena’.


He dismisses her saying she probably has a lot to do. She agrees and asks if he wants anything. Only that she understood him he says. She says she does but obviously there is friction again. He asks they discuss it like adults. He wants a pen and paper as the lawyer is coming tomorrow so he can sketch out a draft of the will.


An extended sequence of her in the kitchen sorting things and getting the paper.
She is then on the phone to Sergei. He asks how Vlad is. She tells him she mentioned Sasha and that ‘we’ll have to deal with this ourselves… He says it’s your job, as a father, to deal with the problem’. Apparently Vladimir is the only option for the money in her mind.
She says she is upset herself but thinks there is some truth to what Vlad said. ‘We’ll figure it out ourselves. We’ll think of something’. Sergei, having put the phone down, calls Vlad a tight arse. He then goes to the fridge and calls out to Tanya, his wife, asking where his beers are. She asks if he got to baby formula but he is more concerned there was a beer in the fridge before. Sasha enters and is asked if he did his homework. Yes. Silence. Tanya enters and also sits at the kitchen table. Silence as they eat crisps. She asks him the same question.


We see again a contrast between Vladimir and Katya’s relationship with that of Elena’s family who though physically close are emotionally unavailable to each other. Most importantly we have Sergei finally in focus. He considers Vladimir a tight arse for not giving over his earnings to his in-laws. He feels they have some right to claim the money. We get no impression Sergei has done anything to contribute towards Sasha’s university fees himself to at least in part provide for his own son. It almost begins to give validity to Vlad’s expectation that Sergei should be, or at least trying to, provide for his own son.


When asks if the essential baby formulae is there he is more focused on his pleasurable drinking of a beer. The implication being we see he is someone who, like his mother, puts on the front of being hard done by but expects easy answers and external influences to aid them not to do things for themselves. Perhaps this is all a statement on the failure of the old commune mentality where the state provides for you versus the contemporary capitalist society where you get what you earn (however you go about earning it).


Elena therefore goes through a transition at this point where she takes the initiative to claim the money instead of expecting a handout in the last part of the film. She seeks to ‘earn’ the money by taking it by force rather than expect a handout charity Vladimir who can provide it but refuses because Sergei doesn’t match the expectations of him.


Elena is sat in silence at her vanity table and looks at herself in the mirror. She goes to look at the bookcase and takes a thick book to read in the kitchen. A medical encyclopedia. She is looking at medication types and goes to look at Vlad’s prescription. Then she is in the kitchen making a vegetable smoothie to serve him with his pills. She even serves those in a small plastic tumbler like a hospital nurse would. Playing the role of the nursemaid. His room, she comments, is a mess because of the balled up rejected drafts. He says it’s all coming out wrong and he can’t focus/concentrate. She tells him to take his medicine first before anything else. She returns to the kitchen waiting tensely. He calls to her to take the bed table away so he can nap. As she is clearing she takes away his bedside phone so he can not call the emergency services.


She walks past a large collection of family photos on the wall and the camera zooms in on one of her stood alone on a forest path smiling. I assume its her. We haven’t seen this wall before so the photos are hard to focus on in their brief moment we see them and it could easily influence our perception of the characters’ relationships. Maybe there are photos of Vladimir or Katya with Elena’s family which would be a massive indicator of their relationships. It is definitely out of keeping with the sterile environment of the apartment we have been presented so far in the film. Silence. We cut to her frowning and waiting pensively. Silence. She moves about and finally goes to check. she puts her head against the door to his room before opening the sliding door. and sees he is dead. She crumples to the floor before going to check his pulse. She tidies the room removing all evidence of his drafted will before checking it and burning the crumpled pages in a glass bowl. She watchs the flames before then dousing them and putting the extractor fan on. She is flustered. She places the box of medication next to his nightstand.


Next we see her sat with a doctor who is incredulous that no one told her to abstain [from sex though they don’t say it]. ‘It is strictly prohibited after a heart attack’. Like little kids, i swear. Dumb teenagers have more sense’ he laments. She says he could be a bit more tactful. She is playing the bereaved wife just as she played the nurse and the concerned wife.


Katya arrives at her father’s funeral with a handful of long stem roses dressed exactly as she was at the cafe. Coincidence or is this to subtly indicate that she is not as frivolous with the money she received as Elena no doubt assumed? Does it symbolise she has shut herself off emotionally again? We see from Katya’s face that she is having a hard time to hold herself in and not break down. We see her sit down and everyone grieves in silence… except Elena who, as Katya had commented earlier, plays her role well as the grieving widow. She is comforted by someone in a military uniform. Who is he? We do not know. We see none of Elena’s family there so must assume it is only Vladimir’s associates. Maybe this man is who inspires Vlad to believe the military to be a valid option for Sasha. Perhaps it was not out of spite he commented that it was the best school but having seen how well this man turned out? We cannot know but again are given options on how to see the events of the film. People stood outside are called in for the final farewells segment of the ceremony.


Next we see Elena lying in her own bed in the apartment running her hand against the wall. Her family haven’t appeared to console her after the death it seems. she gets up and sits at her vanity table brushing her hair as she did at the start of the film and pinning her hair up. Vladimir is gone but nothing has changed. This is her routine. It becomes more apparent that perhaps he was the burden to her rather, as she presented it, that he resented her. She is the one who created the distance between them not him possibly.
We cut to Katya lying on a sofa as bells chime. The camera remains as she slides down and the church bells continue. No trousers on. She is exposed both physically and emotionally. The world moves on but her world has become static. (I forgot to note down what her apartment looks like but there is a lot of natural light and stylish, if utilitarian but definitely not flamboyant, furniture).


Then a cut to Elena with her face lit in profile but otherwise a scene of pure black and silence. She opens the window on Vlad’s now empty but tidied room. We hear the sounds of traffic outside. She is in the kitchen listening to a cooking show eating porridge. We see the screen of the TV reflected on one of the cabinets of the kitchen. The people are comparing various sausages and their worth/quality. What was her relationship with Vladimir worth that she so easily killed him? What quality of a person is she, and by extension her family, to benefit from his death so easily?


Elena, in a later scene, opens the desk and is removing things and putting them into a parcel she puts in her handbag. She checks herself in the mirror and leaves. It was dark here but the windows are all open and sunlight pouring in as she sits down in the living room area. Classical music plays. The phone rings. She goes down to the taxi she ordered. She is putting on her facade again.


We see her look listlessly out of the window of the yellow cab which mirrors Vladimir’s car drive earlier in the film.


In a long shot down a corridor we see a waitress prepare tea. actually its the lawyer’s office which is all pastel creams and window allowing natural light to flood in. The lawyer had visited Vladimir at the hospital but hadn’t documented his wishes, as required by law, in order for them to be binding. He states he is forced therefore, due to a lack of a will, that the principle of legal succession will enter into force. He left no debts otherwise she would be liable to creditors. (So his affairs were in order so as not to burden her it seems). We see Katya sat intensely listening to him with her hair down. She has a blazer, its sleeves crumpled up to the upper arm, and a water effect, wave patterned, blue and white top on under it which seems to denote transition from a spoilt daughter to an adult woman in her own right. No make up of note. Casual smart. As he died Elena is entitled to a portion of the property acquired during marriage i.e. their share of the common property. Katya draws her cigarettes from her pocket. Elena also inherits an equal portion of the inheritance on an equal basis as the other heirs in regards to his personal property.


However, in this case as they were married only just over 2 years, (so during the 8 years of the relationship they were common law partners or having an affair – it is hard to tell as we never hear anything about Katya’s mother) and no common property was acquired. So there can be no talk of a spousal share. Elena looks tense wearing a simple button up cardigan top and her hair pinned back. Elena is in control of herself but, with her hair down, Katya is not its implied in the visuals of the costume design. Elena will only inherit on an equal basis with Katya his common law and personal property. As, to his knowledge, there are no other heirs it will be divided between the two of them.


Katya mentions her father kept a sizeable amount of money in his home safe. (How would she know? Obviously he told her or we have been misled and she has been to visit him just not as often as Elena visit’s her son’s family). Elena claims there was nothing. Katya challenges this. Elena asks she believe her.


He asks if they would like a break as Katya gets up to smoke but she says continue ‘Right, Elena Anatolievna?’ she says and Elena agrees. Katya knows something happened but her hands are tied. She can only suspect and speculate as Elena was thorough in removing any evidence of her actions. It’s the words of a grieving widow against a grown daughter who still received money from her father.


We see Katya smoke often – which is common in Russia so perhaps not something of note but we could take it as her coping mechanism for stress. Meeting Elena is stressful as this is a woman who has ‘intruded’ into her father’s life without bringing anything Katya would consider a benefit to him. When in the hospital she is with her father who just had a heart attack and this too is stressful. We do not see Katya smoke at the funeral (I might be wrong about that) and her apartment – why? Is smoking only something to be done in the presence of others? Is it a social thing? Or, in her grief, she abstains from it. But the habit returns and she needs a cigarette to calm down when she knows Elena has taken the money but cannot prove it. But to reiterate smoking is not as taboo as it is here so maybe it is foolish to interpret it as anything other than what it is at face value.


Next Elena is on a train platform. She is sat alone and overhears conversations. (Unsubtitled sadly as they would probably act as a Greek chorus as the television shows do in this film). The train stops. A muffled voice calls out over the tannoy. People move through the cabin and the door squeakyly opens and closes. The train moves as she looks out the window. A dead white horse lies at a level crossing being inspected by a group of men stood over it. Symbolic – of what I haven’t a clue. Loss of innocence, death of the breadwinner, come to your own conclusions.


Smoke billows out of some cooling towers near Sergei’s apartment. Elena goes up and gives Sergei the money from the safe. Thick bundles of cash. How much? More than they could ever need. He says this is something they should drink to. Elena is beaming with joy at seeing how elated her family are. he asks if there is anything to drink and Tanya says there is something in the fridge. The baby is on Elena’s lap but Sasha is nowhere to be seen. Tanya pulls out a bottle of wine hidden above the kitchen’s upper cabinets. Was this her secret stash? It’s the only bit of characterisation for her we would get in the film if so. Sergei says ‘let’s drink to Vladimir. He did one decent thing in his life, at least’. Ungrateful parasite. Elena suggest they drink to Sasha. #she doesn’t even want to acknowledge Vladimir now she has her ill-gotten gains. Sergei calls to his son and gets a ‘what’ shouted back disrespectfully. He comes into the living room. Sergei calls him ‘college boy’. Sasha asks about the money and Sergei teases that Sasha has never seen so much in his life. As if Sergei has?


Tanya suggests toasting to a new life. Sergei tells his mother they have another surprised for her. Tanya and he are having another baby. She thinks this is wonderful. Sergei says if he has a boy he will call it Vladimir. Tanya hopes it’s a girl. Elena says ‘Yeah, a girl would be better! To a girl!” they drink to the toast. Tanya tells Sergei to go easy on the wine to which Sergei challenges ‘dont rain on my parade woman’. So they will have another child they couldn’t provide for and now have a windfall which they will likely waste having had no experience of dealing with such an amount of money.


The electricity to the apartment cuts out suddenly leaving them sat in the dark. Sasha mocks ‘Game over’. He had been playing games earlier and it seems this is the one note of his character. He speaks not as someone with his own mind but parroting the words of others from his limited experience.


Sergei says it’s probably just the circuit breaker. Elena grips at his arm so tight Sergei says she is going to break his arm. Is she scared of what might happen to him knowing that anything could happen? Anything like a wife killing you with prescribed medicine? Is she becoming a bit like Lady Macbeth? No. But it’s nice to think there would be consequences to her actions. Sergei goes to check and notes ‘looks like the whole building’s out.’ A neighbour calls back to him ‘the whole world!’ “Arseholes” he mutters as laughter is heard down the corridor from the gang of young men.


Someone calles ‘Hey Aleksei” as they check the circuit breaker box but no one knows whats going on. The whole blocks been cut off. ‘Arseholes’, Sergei reiterates, ‘they cut and we pay’ but Aleksei tells him to forget it. Sergei takes no responsibility for his own circumstances choosing to project it onto others. Now we really are challenged to see Elena’s earlier portrayal of the family in a positive light. There is an old saying regarding ‘who you are in the dark’ and we are being exposed to how there was some truth to the dim view Vladimir and Katya held of Elena’s family. The gang of youths walk past Sergei and Aleksei with Sasha leaving to go ‘on a walk’ so Sergei tells him to be back by 11.
Sergei asks Tanya if they’ve any candles. ‘why would we?’ she asks. The family doesn’t make plans for the future they live in the moment and so their circumstances are their own fault. They would prefer to buy beer and computer games rather than invest in their future. It becomes more apparent Vladimir was the back up plan for his money not a valid relative who was part of their family.


We, as an audience, begin to wonder if the division between Vladimir/Katya and Elena/Sergei et al was, as suggested earlier, due to the supposedly elitist father and daughter, a mutual disinterest/disdain or in fact spurred by some resentment by the less well-off family who were jealous of the others circumstances?


Sasha whistles calling out to Vitya and Lesha, his friends unseen until now unless they were part of the young gang Elena passed during her first visit to the building, he runs out to where the youths are. They ask what took him so long. He says his grandmother was on his case. She wasn’t and had actually brought him good news but he is ungrateful. Again we are shown that Elena’s family are undeserving of anything Vladimir would have given to them. They thought he chickened out and almost went without him. He gets offended and they tell him to calm down and offer him a drink which he downs so they tell him to leave some for them as he guzzles it. Clearly the sense of entitlement to others property isn’t just a characteristic of Elena and Sergei. He asks if ‘they’ are there. they all leave together. ‘They’ are an unnamed other and in the morality of Sergei’s family ‘others’ are to be hated without challenge or question. Vladimir and Katya are also other so its easy to see how in fact the animosity seems to come from the family Elena views with rose-tinted glasses and not the more privileged pair.


The gang walks down the road and across the dual carriageway telling a driver to fuck off when he honks at them. They go into the overgrowth by the cooling towers where a long tracking one-shot of them approaching the camp fire and they attack the people around it. One shouts ‘kill him’. It’s a gang fight with sticks and rocks being hurled. Sasha runs away as he is chased. He pulls a knife but Dima, of the ‘other’ gang, singlehandedly beats him and runs off with his friend. Sasha lies still. He is dead it seems but coughs and rolls over. A long-held shot as he rises. Elena’s family are easy to judge others but incapable of dealing with the consequences. If Vladimir had not died what would the consequences have been? We can only speculate but it goes without question this is not someone who deserves to be rewarded for his ill-considered actions. Just like his grandmother he resorts to excess violence to resolve matters when he feels he has lost control of them.


Elena is tidying up Vladimir’s flat with the baby crying on the vacant bed with Tanya eventually attending to it. They have moved in there. Sergei asks why they need sliding doors – he could put a wall in and Sasha could have his own room. Already they seek to change their surrounding to suit them rather than adapt. Elena says they can’t decide anything without Katya. Sergei says ‘We’ll figure something out’ echoing her words tellingly from earlier. She doubts it but he is sure. Sasha, as he did at the start spits off the edge of the balcony. A crow caws in the distance and he looks up and as he looks over his shoulder to the interior we see he has a black eye and a scar over his eyebrow.


Sergei asks his mother if they have any beer. She says look in the fridge. So he has moved into Vladimir’s apartment and now drinks his beer assuring the audience of his parasitic attitude. We hear the TV as he walks out on the balcony with his beer.


As the camera pans across the apartment we hear a contestant on a dating show (similar to blind date) saying ‘I don’t think it matters whose prize you are’
Another ‘he’s got qualities i like. he leads an interesting life, he’s got kind eyes’.


Walking past his son Sergei tussles Sasha’s hair. There seem no consequences to Sasha’s gang fight – if anything this seems to imply that Sergei approves of his son or, like his mother does with him, views his son’s actions through rose-tinted glasses.


Back in the room we hear the presenter ask ‘Choose Katya or Dasha, there’s no difference… whichever one takes your fancy.
You’ll be a trophy!’ other people on the TV say ‘that was so cool, you were better than all of them. Don’t listen to anyone’.


Elena, Tanya and Sergei are sat watching the TV. His arms are outstretched as though he already owns this place. His mother at his right arm but Tanya sat over on another seat. Elena asks if the baby is asleep which Tanya confirms. Tanya remarks ‘Elena Anatolievna, this is amazing!’ and Elena asks if anyone wants tea. Tanya offers to help and Sergei asks Tanya for nuts while watching the pretty women on tv as Tanya tidies the table mirroring the behaviour of Vladimir earlier. He has usurped Vladimir’s lace but is an ill replacement morally as he expects others to provide for him.


We hear the dialogue on TV again: ‘I feel like I am 90 years old, and I want to grumble because you are all younger than me, except Leonid. I think you are all empty-headed bimbos.’
‘Keep it in perspective or you’ll be sitting here until your pension’
The audience on television applaud.
‘She wants a lot, but she doesn’t know what she’s going to give yet’
‘Zhenya what did you think of Lena?’
‘I don’t know what to tell you. Basically… there’s nothing I can say.’


Could we not take the same view of the characters we have seen during this film?


Sasha is still looking out over the balcony and hears young men shouting as they play football. There is a long shot watching the players – some in black t-shirts and the others in orange tabards. Aspiration – this is what Sergei’s family are about but having now gained a better housing situation they are still dissatisfied and desire more. Sasha here still seeks to belong as he looks at the football players but it is aspiration not achievement. Talking of what could be but never making the effort to achieve it for themselves but instead rely on the work of others and if it is not given to them they resort to violence due to their self-assured sense of entitlement.


The baby sleeps turned to the side, just as Vladimir had done earlier, on his vacated bed. Music creeps up as the baby awakens and sits up.


We get the same shot as the start of the film of the window outside Vladimir’s apartment but this time with the family around the table instead of darkness. It’s a bittersweet ending. This image on its own is joyous but what was done to achieve it and if it is sustainable are questions they would rather ignore.


The cycles of behaviour continue unchecked. Elena is unpunished. The insertion of the scene between Vladimir and Katya if removed would have completely shifted the tone of this film. Selfishness won out. There is no justice. Vladimir provided for both Katya and Elena because, after sacrificing everything to achieve what he has, they are all he truly has. For all Elena knew he may have been giving her a greater share in his will but we will never know and she doesn’t care as she has got what she needs albeit through needless evil. If anything its interesting to see how one added scene can make you sympathetic to characters who in another film we would, as an audience, judge as the outright antagonists.


The BBC’s synopsis suggests to me no one actually watched this film but just lifted the description from elsewhere. There was no ‘saving an inheritance’ here but making sure Elena got as much as she could.


If I had to make a comparison in terms of what kind of narrative this is I immediately recall Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Here similar thematics play out as if Vladimir is holding back Elena’s family from living just as Gregor Samsa did his through invalidity. Both were the breadwinner in their mutual situations. Does Elena have any right to expect Vladimir to provide for her family? It is presented as if this is a given initially and if only he would provide the financing then all her families’ worries would be solved. Were they all resolved at the end? It seemed so although they expect to be able to alter their surroundings to suit themselves, Sergei wanting to put in a wall, and their behaviour isn’t fitting for their surrounds with Sergei being loud and Sasha spitting off the balcony.
They aspired to a better quality of life, have got it from their provider’s efforts, but don’t seem able to adapt to it. Metaphorically Gregor’s transformation is indicative of an incapability to change when his family move on and so he is left behind. In that story after Gregor’s death the family are seen to improve in their situation and so we question the ‘reality’ of the presented scenario. It is well note Kafka stated to never depict Gregor as a ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’ (usually translated as ‘monstrous vermin’. Was Vladimir such a figure? Was his refusal to give all the money for Sasha to go to university truly monsterous? He at first wishes to consider it, then later gives reason for denying it and in later scenes we see that there was some validity to his assumptions (whether he knew it to be true of Sergei and his family or not is debatable). Certainly how Elena seems to serve him makes him come across, as Gregor did, as a burden to the family after his ability to provide is gone. As soon as he is gone, and Sergei’s family have moved in, Vladimir and by extension Katya are no longer a serious consideration in the family’s affairs though they benefitted from them.


Vladimir worked for his money, or at least we are never told how he gained his money so perhaps it wasn’t indicated well in the subtitles if it was by immoral behaviour during the 1990s. We can only speculate. Certainly he is a man used to getting his way as seen by how he initiates intimacy with Elena and it goes unchallenged he checks out younger women. Is this a sign of villainous behaviour, as Elena presents it, or merely the wandering eye of an alpha male as Katya teases him. We could speculate that he did have Katya’s mother around when he met Elena and thus Katya’s distance and disdain for Elena and her family could easily be explained but it is mere speculation. The more we learn the more we stop seeing Elena as the protagonist of the film and just as its focal point which is an important distinction to make. With the opening scenes we sympathise for her Cinderella like lifestyle of servitude but the more we learn and see the more we question until she crosses the moral line and the truth is slowly unveiled about how worthy of charity her family really are.


We as an audience should interpret the film for ourselves and I feel the BBC’s description of Elena ‘saving’ an inheritance is very leading and almost approving of the villainous behaviour of Elena.


‘but she had good reason to’ someone might declare. She needed to provide for her family and Katya would just waste it. But, in contrast Elena did not earn that money, as we see in the lawyer’s office very few if any assets have been bought since she and Vladimir began their relationship so everything we have seen was purchased by Vladimir’s money alone and as his spouse she has a right to half of it and, taking an Elena sympathising view, we are meant to feel she is ‘cheated’ of the rest of his property because Katya is also a rightful inheritor even though Elena stole the money from the safe rather than declare it. it is a point of argument and that is the point. There is no one universal correct answer here. Elena wants to provide for her family and they need the money. Katya is presented as being hedonistic but we only have the comments of other characters to confirm this. We, as an audience, only have what is presented in frame to interpret and it goes without saying that each of the characters has a bias.


Vladimir: Is he an emotionally cold man used to being in absolute control over people or a man putting up a facade to deceive himself that he is not as isolated as he is presented in all his scenes? He shows love towards Katya and speaks frankly with Elena about why he can’t provide the money. So is his love selfish, as he ensures Katya is okay but ignores others or is he a moral man who comes across cold because he must make such choices so he doesn’t allow himself to be manipulated by charity cases?


Elena: Is she more a live in carer than a lover? Katya is his stubborn daughter who he deeply cares for and despite putting up a front does sincerely reciprocate his love. Sergei’s family we never see him interact with but who Elena expects him to provide for. Is she truly a loving and doting wife or did she aspire to a better lifestyle and only later regretted leaping at the first and easiest opportunity for this? At what point did Vladimir’s fortune become the priority in Elena’s assessment of things – from their first meeting, as she aspired to a better standard of life, or only when he refused to subsidise Sasha’s draft dodge and she had an opportunity to ensure she got her desired result? Vladimir is an emotionally cold person towards her but one who guarantees, due solely to his money, a good standard of life. One which she wishes to share with her son’s family by ‘buying’ Sasha’s way into university so he can avoid the obligatory military service many young men of his age have to. Katya is the daughter from another marriage and things are cold between them. We never see Elena take Katya into consideration only consulting her in order to influence Vladimir when he becomes stubborn and to ‘play the good wife’. There is no love lost between the two. Sergei’s family she sees through rose-tinted glasses doting on them and travelling to see them.


Katya: Is she living off her father’s money or does he, as Elena does, provide to his child without question having never really cut ties as a parent? Does she see him very little because of some issue in the past like his meeting Elena which makes her uneasy? Did she and Elena ever get on at all? Elena calls her by her diminutive but is that sincere or an act as Katya doesn’t return it? Was Katya’s hospital visit all an act to ensure continued financial support? Does she just play the good, if emotionally reticent, daughter to him or does she truly care but has learned from him to keep her emotions guarded behind a facade of dry humour? What we know of her is generally given by other characters but we see her take responsibility by attending the funeral and the lawyer’s office and challenge, as best she could give the lack of evidence, the missing money from the safe. She is a character who practises restraint even at a funeral but at times shows her true personality which are positive characteristics like standing up for herself, mourning her father’s passing and calling out inconsistencies (the missing money). Sasha in contrast to her is easily controlled and does act out in ungrateful rebellion towards his parents despite being clearly spoiled by them.Is it just teenage rebellion or signs of him growing into an immoral adult who sees aggression as an effective tool to resolve conflict and get what he wants?


Just like Vladimir she puts on a front of being cold but it is a facade that is easily broken between the mutually loving father and daughter. Or maybe you think they, either one or both, are lying when no one else, except the audience, is watching which is a possible perception of the scene. Elena is an unwelcome figure to Katya. We must ask is Katya unaccepting, believing her mother (who I think is never actually mentioned) should be the only woman in Vladimir’s life and Elena therefore is an unwelcome interloper? Or does she know Elena to have never been a loving person and clearly only there for the inheritance? Katya I don’t recall mentioning Sergei’s family except when Elena mentions them and expresses the same view as her father: Sergei is a grown man and should provide for his own family not expect handouts.


Do we as an audience view Vladimir’s money support as being obligatory due to familial ties or as an act of charity Elena expects of him without compensation? ‘But she has put up with him for years!’ someone cries. And? There were other things Elena could do to support her family but she expects Vladimir’s money, which we later learn was all but completely earned before his meeting her, to be her money also. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too.


Certainly we don’t see Sergei or his family make any express effort towards keeping Sasha out of the army themselves. If anything it seems like an inevitability and something that would draw him away from the gang lifestyle he seems to be aspiring too. Of course in the 90s the people who profited the most were unscrupulous business men or criminals and Vladimir must have been one or the other we assume but both required risk and effort. Sasha wants the easy route, the criminal route, but in contrast we have Vladimir who worked for his lifestyle and who is resistant to giving someone he isn’t responsible for an easy life though he spoils Katya as a doting father. you could argue he is making up for past indiscretions but it is, like many things regarding his past, speculation on our part.


We can take the procession of events as either Sergei’s family fully expecting Elena to get the money for them or that, unspoken, there is a belief that Sasha would benefit from the army – after all when we focus on Sasha he is either involved with the gang of youths (and later is beaten up because of it) or playing computer games (which is quite lazy ‘older generation’ imagery for wasting time just as for their generation watching television would have been the equivalent though it’s now presented in a less judgemental way).


Sasha is the one character in the film we have focus on (Tanya plays the generic background wife and has no impact on the narrative whatsoever) where we do not have the option of interpreting his character. At the start he was heading out to be with the gang, then denied this he sits playing computer games and his father tries to bond with him while doing so to explain why he can’t, and then later Sasha, having defied his parent’s choice, is involved in a gang fight with the final scene of him being one where he is spitting off the balcony the family has moved into.


If this was an American film there would be a direct-to-video sequel where Elena tries to kill Katya too so she can get all the inheritance or thriller where Katya gets revenge for her father’s murder. Instead we are left with the image of a family given more than they deserve and wanting to change it to suit them rather than adjust and ‘improve’ themselves. Parasites. Parasites who leave us questioning if Elena began her relationship with Vladimir because of the prospect that his money would improve her family’s life. A selfless individual to those who sympathise but a parasite to those who see her behaviour for what it is: a lazy answer to universal struggle and one where she speeds the desired result up and steals the money from the safe getting half of his lifetime’s accrued assets for a few years of a passionless relationship having, as Katya puts it, played the role of the good wife.


Summary review: Elena is a divisive character and one who raises interesting questions about morality and society. The film is one I definitely recommend as long as you understand it is a slow-paced drama and it is all about characters’ interactions and coming to your own understanding of who is or is not sympathetic. Nadezhda Markina and Elena Lyadova are both fantastic in their roles and I hope to see them in more though all around the cast is tremendously strong. It is a film which is better reflected on, shared and discussed with others as there is enough space here to raise questions of morality and society’s expectations of individuals. There is no justice in the world – just your survival and ensuring the survival of those you love.


Credits

Elena – Nadezhda Markina
Vladimir – Andrey Smirnov
Katerina – Elena Lyadova
Sergey – Aleksey Rozin
Tatyana – Evgeniya Konushkina
Aleksandr – Igor Ogurtsov

Director – Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cinematography – Mikhail Krichman
Producer – Aleksandr Rodnyansky
Writers – Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev
Music – Phillip Glass


Quite a rambling review but the points are made. You could also take other readings of the narrative I didn’t touch upon such as how it reflects the failure of the social values of the Communist era where the emphasis isn’t placed on the individual to provide for society but of how much society can provide for the individual. Questions of how this reflects the inherent corruption of the Soviet system which has been internalized by those who needed to cheat the system just to survive and now expect to be provided for. It could be seen as a ‘morganatic marriage nearly a century after the October Revolution’ as someone said. You could even go as far as to argue it represents the conflicts of the early twentieth century in which the Tsar, having failed to successfully provide for his people, was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. It would be a bit of a stretch but it could be done.


Yet again I have an issue with WordPress’ layout system so everything has to be sectioned off so it isn’t a massive block of text…


Comment, Like, Follow – All are welcome. What was your view of the film if you have seen it?

Boris Godunov – Opera

The Royal Opera House

Music Director – Sir Antonio Pappano

Director of Opera – Kasper Holten

Boris Godunov – Opera In Seven Scenes (Original Version) ( Борис Годунов)

Music – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky (Модест Петрович Мусоргский)

Libretto – Modest Petrovich Musorgsky adapted from the historical tragedy by Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (Алекса́ндр Серге́евич Пу́шкин)

The edition of Boris Godunov used in the performances is published by Verlagsgruppe Hermann, edited by Michael Rot.

Performed by arrangement with Alkor-Edition Kassel and Faber Music Ltd, London.


Conductor – Antonio Pappano

Director – Richard Jones

Set Designer – Miriam Buether

Costume Designer – Nicky Gillibrand

Lighting Designer – Mimi Jordan Sherin

Movement Director – Ben Wright

Associate Director – Elaine Kidd


Royal Opera Chorus

Chorus Director – Renato Balsadonna

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Concert master – Peter Manning

Directed for the Screen by Jonathan Haswell


Live from the Royal Opera House:

Monday 21 March 2016, 7.15PM

(Lottery Funded)

(Supported using the public funding by Arts Council England)


Synopsis

After the death of Ivan the Terrible the boyar Boris Godunov was appointed regent – Ivan’s older son, Tsar Fyodor, was physically and mentally frail, and his younger son Dmitry was an infant. Dmitry died mysteriously at the age of eight; many believed Boris had arranged his murder. Now Fyodor is dead, and with no direct heir to the throne, Boris is the most likely candidate to be the next Tsar.

Scene 1

Boris has retreated to a monastry. A crowd gather outside and entreat him to accept the throne. Shchelkalov, clerk of the Boyar’s Council, tells the crowd that Boris is reluctant to rule.

Scene 2

Boris is crowned Tsar in the Kremlin and his coronation is hailed by the people.

Years pass. Boris proves to be a good and wise ruler, and a devoted father. Under his rule Russia prospers. Then, unexpectedly, the country is visited by dreadful famines. The superstitious believe this is a divine punishment, visited on Boris for the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry.

Scene 3

In the monastery within the Kremlin, the monk Pimen is interrupted by the young novice Grigory, who has had a nightmare. Grigory asks Pimen to talk about Russia’s past. Pimen talks of Ivan the Terrible, of the saintliness of Ivan’s son Fyodor, and of the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitry. On hearing that Dmitry resembles him and was about the same age, Grigory formulates a plan to impersonate the Tsarevich, and stir up rebellion.

Scene 4

Grigory (now in secular clothes) comes to an inn near the Lithuanian border, with the monks Varlaam and Missail. The Frontier Guard arrives, searching for Grigory, and carrying an edict for his arrest. Grigory realizes that the Guard cannot read and doesn’t know what he looks like, and so reads out the edict, describing the monk as resembling Varlaam, rather than himself. Varlaam protests his innocence and reads the edict correctly. Grigory escapes.

Scene 5

In the Tsar’s apartments, Xenia laments the early death of her fiance, while her brother Fyodor studies a map of Russia. Boris meditates on what he has achieved since he came to power. Prince Shuisky arrives with news that a pretender, calling himself the Tsarevich Dmitry, has appeared in Lithuania. Boris orders Shuisky to seal the border, and demands reassurance that Dmitry really did die. Shuisky describes Dmitry’s murder, but hints that the Tsarevich’s dead body may have miraculous powers. Boris, frightened, orders Shuisky to leave and, giving way to guilt and remorse, hallucinates that he can see the dead Dmitry.

Scene 6

Outside St Basil’s Cathedral, the crowd are talking about the pretender Grishka (Grigory) Otrepiev. A holy Fool sings a nonsensical song, and some urchins steal a penny [kopeck] from him. Boris and his retinue leave the Cathedral, and the hungry crowd beg for bread. The Holy Fool suggests that Boris should order the murder of the thieving urchins, just as he ordered the murder of the Tsarevich Dmitiry. Shuisky demands that the Holy Fool be arrested, but Boris instead asks the Holy Fool to pray for him. The Holy Fool refuses to pray for ‘Tsar Herod’ and laments the fate of Russia.

Scene 7

At the Kremlin, the Boyar’s Council agree that Grigory and his followers should be executed. Shuisky reports that Boris claims to have seen the dead Tsarevich Dmitry and is deeply troubled. Boris appears, still in the grip of his hallucination. Pimen enters and tells Boris that the Tsarevich Dmitry has become a saint from beyond the grave and cured an old man’s blindness. Boris collapses in a seizure. He calls for his son Fyodor, bids the boy farewell and calls for God’s blessing on his children. He names Fyodor the heir to the throne, begs forgiveness and dies.


 

Cast

Boris Godunov – Bryn Terfyl

Andrey Shchelkov (Clerk of the Boyar’s Council) – Kostas Smoriginas

Nikitich (A Police Officer) – Jeremy White

Mityukha (A Peasant) – Adrian Clarke

Prince Vasily Ivanovich Shuisky – John Graham-Hall

Pimen (A Monk and Chronicler) – Ain Anger

Grigory Otrepiev (Later ‘The False Dmitry) – David Butt Philip

Hostess of the Inn – Rebecca De Pont Davies

Varlaam (Monk) – John Tomlinson

Missail (Monk) – Harry Nicoll

Frontier Guard – James Platt

Xenia’s Nurse – Sarah Pring

Fyodor (Boris Godunov’s Son) – Ben Knight

Boyar – Nicholas Sales

Yorodivy (Holy Fool) – Andrew Tortise

Russian populace, Boyars, Soldiers, Pilgrims – Ensemble


The opera lasts approximately two hours, ten minutes.

There is no interval.

The production ‘realistically’ depicts and revisits the murder of the young crown prince (Tsarevich) Dmitry. They advise that it is not suitable for children under the age of 12 years old.


Above is the information, with a few alterations, you are provided at a cinema screening.


Review:

Staging: The stage is divided into two halves. on the upper level is the golden prayer/coronation chamber. This is also where the murder occurs. The lower, darker grey, level is where most events occur and has some large mobile scenery which can be moved in and out to change scenes.

boris godunov stage loayout

There are to the rear three moving raised platforms used by the chorus when they are dressed in traditional robes during the coronation scene and on one or two other parts. The smaller props include a yellow painted chair to represent the Imperial Throne, a bar set used during the inn scene and two manuscript scenery pieces which were very impressive. The first is during scene 3 where we see the manuscript Pimen has been writing with large illustrations of the previous Tsars. Watching this in cinema you get a close up view of the areas where they wipe the paint/ink clean after each performance where Pimen writes in Cyrillic during this scene.

The backgrounds for the upper section consist of 3 windows with are back lit. They display, depending on the scene, three bells for the monastery scenes or are unlit for those in the Imperial palace. This was minimal, but very effective, to allow an economy of staging. My only crticism would be that this upper part, unlike the lower level, seemed to have no depth and so the Boyars who walk back and forth seem very cramped and almost like characters from a 2D computer game marching back and forth during some scenes. Perhaps this area is meant to represent Boris’ inner mindscape as the murder of Dmitry is repeated her a number of times but I can only imagine the issues this alcove causes for any audiences who do not have a clear line of sight to it in the theatre.

On the lower section, after Boris’ coronation any interior scenes have the background host a line of icons of the Tsar otherwise the background is unlit and in the case of Scene 3 light is projected through the right doorway to indicate the low lighting of the monastery’s interior. On the provided simple illustration I indicate the door ways with green lines to either side of the staging. There is also a rail on the upper level and at one point one of the performers holds it with such force it rattles which was amusing but also a safety concern.

Costume: This to me was the weakest point by far. There is an odd mix of traditional clothing and more modern clothing but is set in the sixteenth and first few years of the seventeenth century. I wish they had gone in one direction or the other. Of course you have the detailed golden robes of the coronation but throughout the rest of the production you have modern clothing hinting at tradition which feels ill at ease e.g. ‘grandfather collared shirts and women in headscarves, patterns on material which is distinctly Slavic contrasting with Boyars dressed in burgundy trousers with grey blazers which distinctly are no earlier than the mid twentieth century in design.

Accessibility: This is a very good opera but also very dense to the point the fourth scene feels almost completely out of place in its efforts to offer some small effort towards a respite from the intensity. As you might have noted this is Mussorgsky’s original version and although I have not seen the adjustments by Rimsky-Korsakov, to amend perceived weaknesses, might have served to make it more palatable to a general audience those the variations have fallen out of favour so Mussorgsky’s individual harmonic style and orchestration can be valued for their originality. The music is very heavy so I would suggest anyone who like the works of composers like Puccini and have not experienced ‘heavier’ orchestrations best listen to some pieces on YouTube to see if it would be to their taste. Anyone familiar with Wagner will probably be fine. For those familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s alterations I would be interested to hear how you view this original draft of the opera – especially in comparison to his own works. Mussorgsky has other, unfinished works, and I would like to hear them but I am of a mind that perhaps he found the form of opera something very troublesome and despite his best efforts never truly felt at ease with it.

Subject matter: If you are not familiar with Russian history you best read the brief synopsis of the scenes so you can keep up with what is happening as there are some big jumps in time at the start.

It is best to bear in mind that this opera is based upon Pushkin’s tragedy.

Pushkin wrote of his play:

“The study of Shakespeare, Karamzin, and our old chronicles gave me the idea of clothing in dramatic forms one of the most dramatic epochs of our history. Not disturbed by any other influence, I imitated Shakespeare in his broad and free depictions of characters, in the simple and careless combination of plots; I followed Karamzin in the clear development of events; I tried to guess the way of thinking and the language of the time from the chronicles. Rich sources! Whether I was able to make the best use of them, I don’t know — but at least my labors were zealous and conscientious.”

So in context what we are watching is heavily influenced by the writers of each period assimilating and adapting the works of others. Therefore with each stage comes a divergence from reality and an embrace of the romaticised notion of a historical figure. With the mention of Shakespeare there is too obvious a comparison to made here. This opera is the equivalent of an operatic version of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. The central character does not realistically represent the historical figure but a caricature. No more obvious is the parable like nature of this work than when the Holy Fool, Yorodivy, tells Boris he cannot pray for him as that would make the Virgin Mary sad. In Russia there is the fairy tale figure of Ivan the Fool (Иван-дурак or diminutive Иванушка-дурачок). The moral of these stories is that Ivan The Fool is rarely the fool, he is merely perceived as such by others owing to his simple nature and joviality. It is by being a fool, in this tradition, Yorodivy alone is allowed to state what others may not and is ultimately the final nail confirming to Boris his guilt is not only his own but one endorsed by society’s perception of him.

Despite Russia prospering under his rule he is only judged by one act: the sin of murder. He was a good ruler for the country as a whole but for its people he is a figure or fear – a man who would go so far to have power he would murder an innocent child. He is a tragic figure for whom repentance has been denied.

The murder of Dmitry is reprised a few times during the play. This consists of a short actor in an oversized papermache head having a knife drawn across his throat by three assassins and he smears a blood packet across his chest to denote the murder. If you watch this in cinema you will see it up close and it begins to look more comical the more they reprise it. That is not intentional. Part of me wishes they had just had Boris’ son play this role also as it seems this productions intention to mirror the two roles to indicate how, now with a son on his own, Boris feels greater guilt than ever for the murder. The murder is in and of itself not visceral but i understand why they have been cautious enough, in these days where even a ‘U’ rated film has to carry warning of ‘mild peril’ why they have included the warning about the graphic nature of the murder.

Conclusion: This is not an ‘introductory level’ opera. If you want something easy to follow then go check out Puccini or Bizet. If you have dealt with composers like Mahler or Wagner then try it but realise it has its awkward moments. The entire cast does well. There are a number of very impressive performances here but Ain Anger as Pimen steals every scene he is in, Rebecca De Pont Davies is a one act wonder with her bug eyed performance as the Hostess of the Inn and the solos provided by members of the ensemble each stand on their own. If I had one criticism, apart from the costume designs, it is that the preamble VT featured Bryn Terfyl talking about, as a Welsh speaker from North Wales, he finds it hard to do a Russian ‘L’ sound and for the rest of the performance that is all I could focus on with him. It reminded me of a time when  I read an Oxford Press foreword for Turgenev’s ‘Father and Sons’ where Richard Freeborn in his introductory essay gave away major plot points including which characters died and so I couldn’t bring myself to read it. It was just to big a distraction. This is a heavy opera but if you are willing to stay with it you might find it to be a tour de force and something very different from the yearly repeated performances of lighter works.


Comment, like or follow – All are welcome 🙂

http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/boris-godunov-by-richard-jones

 

 

 

 

Anton Chekhov’s ‘Предложение’ (a.k.a A Marriage Proposal / The Proposal)

Предложение (a.k.a ‘A Marriage Proposal‘ or ‘The Proposal‘) is a one act farce by Антон Павлович Чехов (Anton Pavlovich Chekhov), written somewhere between 1888 to 1889 and first performed in 1890. It is a fast paced play of dialogue based action and situational humour. Usually it is performed in combination with other short pieces of Chekhov‘s such as Медведь: Шутка в одном действии (‘The Bear: A Joke in One Act’ or ‘The Boor’).

I was reminded of this piece by the marriage proposal story line featured in ITV’s Dr Thorne mini series which concluded last night. A turn of fortune changes the mind of the future groom’s mother regarding the marital appropriateness of Dr Thorne‘s niece and so there is a marriage and the mother in law is teased for her preoccupation with the families fortunes wishing for her son to marry for money and not love. This theme was prevalent during the nineteenth century with the most widely recognised examples being in the novels ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1813) and ‘Wuthering Heights’ (1847 – albeit in the latter part of the novel which is often omitted in adaptions).

Dramatis personæ:

  • Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov, 54 years old, man (or 70 as he claims at one point to be ‘twice [Ivan’s] age at one point.
  • Natalia Stepanovna Chubukova, his daughter, 25 years old
  • Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov, 35 years old, a neighbour of Chubukov, a large and hearty, but very suspicious landowner

Plot:

Ivan Vassiliyitch Lomov, a long time neighbor of Stepan Stepanovitch Chubukov, has come to propose marriage to Chubukov’s 25-year-old daughter, Natalia. Stephan gives his permission and Natalia is invited into the room, while Stephan steps out, so Ivan may make his proposal to Natalia.

However instead they get into a disagreement about the ownership of the Oxen Meadows adjoining their properties which Ivan intended to gift her as a dowry. The passionate disagreement results in Ivan, a foppish hypochondriac, suffering supposed palpitations and a numbness in his leg. Stepan, rejoining them, notices this and he himself argues about the sort of bad people the Lomov family have been in the past and has Ivan leave his house. While Stepan rants about Lomov, he expresses his shock that “this fool dares to make you [Natalia] a proposal of marriage!” She immediately starts into hysterics, begging for her father to bring him back which he does immediately.

Natalia and Ivan get into a second argument, this time about the superiority of their respective hunting dogs, respectively Squeezer (who is unfit to be a hunting dog) and Guess (who is old and lame). Stepan gets involved and is close to losing his temper and makes this clear to Ivan. At this junction yet again, after accusing Stepan of being an intriguer amongst other things, foppish Ivan gets a case of vapors and collapses from his exhaustion over arguing . Thus Stepan and Natalia, after checking him, fear he is deceased. Stepan also begins to over react at the junction and Natalia cries over the sudden death brought on by the argument.

However, after a few minutes Ivan regains consciousness, and Stepan, insisting they leave him alone afterwards,  all but forces Ivan and his daughter Natalia to accept the marriage proposal with a kiss. Immediately following Ivan’s kiss on Natasha’s hand, the couple restarts their argument over the dogs and Stepan resigned tries to change the subject by calling for champagne to celebrate while decrying this is how they start their union.

The End.

Review:

This is a light hearted skit mocking the over sentimentalisation of marriage proposals alongside the etiquette and behaviour of the the middle classes.


At the start the participates formally address each other using the personal Christian/first name and the patronymic name (based on the name of the individual’s father) indicates how this is a serious proposal but quickly this falls into farce as the arguments arise between the individuals. The equivalent of Mr, Miss, Ms or Mrs were very uncommon and even today tend to be used more often regarding foreigners although it should also be noted the use of the patronymic today is reserved usually for formal occasions while it was more common in use during the past. Later in the piece all sense of etiquette is thrown out as the squabbling takes its place and even after order is restored the personal behaviour of the couple erupts once more over a trivial matter.


You may note how the men in the play are mirrored by the dogs. Ivan is Squeezer who is ‘overstrung’ and Stepan is Guesser who is ‘old and lame’. Natalia speaks dotingly of her dog Squeezer and perhaps this gives an indication of how her marriage will continue in which she will both argue and yet dot on her husband in the future (and it can easily be seen this is how it will go as such a pairing was very commonly portrayed in dramas of the time regarding married couples and you can see reflected in what would become a cliche in televised sitcoms from America focused on a central married couple even today).


If you saw an adaption without Chekhov‘s name attached and with a localised setting would you realise that this is the work a playwright from over a century ago? I doubt it. These character’s archetypes are universal and timeless. If you changed the names to a more local variant you can see them time and time again reflected in later works worldwide. A central male character, usually middle age or reaching it, who over reacts to events around him in situations he has no control over. A woman who is concerned regarding social matters and very argumentative with cutting comments directed towards her partner (which it is fair to comment is a sexist stereotype nowadays). An old man or woman, usually the parent of one of the more prominent characters, passing comment on events and mentioning the past both positively and negatively. These dramatic caricatures repeat as theirs is a simplistic truth pinpointing the faults of society and its nature to confuse the trivial with the sincere within the grander intentions of the people involved.


This is a simple piece and highly entertaining. As I noted earlier it is often performed accompanied by other short pieces by Chekhov and they offer views of society which still hold as true a view of society today as they did during their writing over a century ago. I would highly recommend seeing live performances as there is an energy there which is hard to replicate through recorded versions. I provide the audio book above, which is a fair simple audio performance, so you can experience the dialogue but nothing beats a live performance.


I often want to see adaptions of Chekhov’s works and they are apparently often repeated in repertoires but somehow never seem to be performed near me. I attended the performance of ‘August’, Anthony Hopkins‘ adaption of ‘Uncle Vanya’, when it was premiered at the New Theatre, Cardiff but since then it seems a far rarer thing in South Wales to see the works of Chekhov despite my every care and attention regarding the yearly repertoires in the performing arts of Wales.


People seem intimidated by the works of Russian writers – after all how often do we hear Tolstoy‘s Война и мир (War and Peace) being used as a synonym for ‘immensely long and difficult to read book’? This is due to Tolstoy‘s personal predilection of going into prolonged commentaries about society which pad the book up quite a bit and do not reflect Russian literature at all. The works of Dostoevsky are influenced by Dickens and read just as easily with a focus more on narrative than reflection. The works of Chekhov are expedient, in comparison to previous generations indulgences in the poetics of language, in how concise the dialogue is. The only limit seems, according to a Russian friend,  to be how the Russian productions of these works usually over sentimentalise them, which effects foreign productions perceptions of how to adapt them, when they can be produced in a far more relevant way to today’s audiences.


Yet with this said the BBC‘s recent near cinematic production of ‘War and Peace’ proves even Tolstoy can be translated in an easily understood adaption. Albeit, as is inevitable with many adaptions of literature, some of the aspects are lost for immediacy or because hearing the inner thoughts of a character is a difficult concept to translate without giving them long running monologues or a voice over which takes you out of the scene.


There is a stigma sadly but, once you have dipped your toe into the water and realise how absurd the prejudice is, there is a world of universally recognisable character archetypes in  Russian works.

‘August’ was also made into a film.
 For whatever reason WordPress is refusing to let me space the review part out properly so I used the ‘horizontal line’ tool to break it up and make it a little bit more easy and pleasing to read layout wise.