Wednesday, 19 August 2015

filmbore picks Leviathan


Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Screenplay: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Roman Madyanov, Anna Ukolova, Aleksey Rozin, Sergey Pokhodaev
Year: 2014
Language: Russian
UK rental release: March 2015

Rotten Tomatoes

Nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 87th Academy Awards, Leviathan just lost out to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida. Before this, however, this didn't stop the movie picking up gongs at the London Film Festival Awards, the Golden Globes and getting Best Screenplay at Cannes Film Festival. It turned up at the Oscars as some pretty tough competition. Let's find out why...

Nikolay (Aleksey Serebryakov, Cargo 200, PiraMMMida) is a self made man, living off the land and running his own car repair shop. A tumultuous, if hard-working father, he's currently in the middle of a huge turning point in his life. At the tail end of some of this turmoil is Nikolay's temperamental son, Romka (Sergey Pokhodaev, Six Degrees of Celebration). 

Nikolay and Romka are clearly close, which maybe how some of the father's angst has rubbed off on the son, yet something else is affecting the boy. Nikolay's patient, strong wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova, The Geographer Drank His Globe AwayElena) is not Romka's natural mother, a fact that the young man wears openly. Their relationship is very strained. All of this is having huge impact on Lilya, clearly making her feel remote. 

There is small respite through her mild friendship with fellow workmate Anzhela (Anna Ukolova, The Edge) yet this isn't enough to sate the remoteness she is starting to feel.

Nikolay picks up his brother, Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Paragraph 78, Reketir) from the train station. A lawyer, Dmitriy is visiting to help Nikolay with his recent plight. Nikolay has a court hearing following his involvement with the local council. They want to seize some of his land for mysterious reasons. Appeals made, following loss of business income and more, fall by the wayside and are declined. His hearing does not go well.

The town mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov, Hopelessly Lost, Wild Field), is the man pushing for the seizure of the land. There's definitely something underhand going on, with visits by the city's priest a regular occurrence. On the evening after the hearing, Vadim has the bright idea, through his drunken state, to pay Nikolay a visit and remind him of his claim.  

Vadim's tense visit could be his undoing, as it gives Dmitriy extra ammunition to use in his fight through the courts. Our lawyer has more than just a statement on Vadim's tempestuous, intrusive manner, however... he has a book full of nasty deeds on the manipulative mayor! Will it be enough to get Nikolay and his family what they deserve?

Even before it's release, Leviathan was already causing some upset. Not only has it caused controversy from a religious perspective, both in its jaunted view of the Russian Orthodox Church and similarities to the story of Job, but it has caused even further upset through the suggestion that it is purposefully attempting to undermine the country's leader, Vladimir Putin. Being at a delicate time in Russia's current climate, this has led to much online berating and articles extensively digging through the intention of the story to incite political uproar, judging the tale's moral connotations and stereotypes of drunk Russians. 

In response to these outcries, director Andrey Zvyaginstev stated...
“The story is completely universal, not just in a special geographical context but in the sense of time. It’s not about a concrete era...It just so happens that the era in which we filmed it bears a little bit too much resemblance to [current events].”
...and there it is. So, with that in mind, I'm not going to entertain any furore over the supposed negative impact that a fictional tale has during its unfortunately timed release. Instead, I'm going to try and focus on the film, its story, characters, performances and quality, with maybe a little bit of metaphoric thematic analysis thrown in along the way.

A dulled beauty is apparent as soon as the piece emerges, with opening shots of the stark coastal landscape setting the tone; a voice we are reminded of when the opening orchestral score stops abruptly during images of shipwrecks. It really doesn't take long to notice that this is a moody looking picture, with plenty of shots of barren, yet beautiful, landscapes, strewn with derelict buildings doused with damp and frescoes.  

Shot at all times of day, it's the scenes filmed at dawn and dusk that carry the most weight, accenting the beautifully bleak look that the film delivers. Even though such lens work doesn't get to take much advantage of the high definition shooting, which further highlights the tone and sense the story is trying to portray, this doesn't deter from the feel of the picture overall.

Shots are held for plenty of time for each actor to elicit responses to their counterparts; lingering long enough to catch a facial twitch, or a gentle double-take. It's a confident angle to take in such a delicately paced drama, yet it works so well. This approach helps to emphasise the strain and earthiness that brews within the performances, each character subtly playing off each other for required absolution and refutes.

The biggest victim of these manipulations is the man amidst the hurricane, Nikolay. His journey is quite tough to absorb, as he is pulled in all directions by those that need him, those that repel him and his own inner-self's need for nostalgic legacy and justified stubbornness. 

It's heart-wrenching seeing a man being pushed to his limits, even if necessary to ensure that the story pertains to what it beholds. Be prepared for some heavy themes and startling outcomes. It's quite ominous in parts, but it has to be; a weight that feels fundamental in this piece's invite through the window of a small, if powerful, town, burgeoning with hunger from its turbulent mentality and egocentric inhabitants.

Besides the depth in the plot, it's the performances of these driven characters that hold the entire piece together. The late night confrontation between Nikolay, Dmitriy and Vadim is a showcase for some of the best drunken-acting I've ever seen. It's not too over-the-top or cliche, but subtle enough to seem genuine, while volatile enough to garner tension slowly, all the while seeing how their behaviour is wholly inappropriate; their reaction unnecessarily accentuated. Unusually, there are also minor touch-points of humour. Clearly intentional, if substantially light, they are mere flashes amongst the stirring drama, yet as just as important an ingredient in forming the personality of the piece.

All our actors handle this unconventional blend comfortably, each running away with each scene with little care of the viewer, gracing the piece with a natural tone. One performer who manages this well is Anna Ukolova. She's not starred in many films but she has a great acting presence. I feel she deserves more exposure in the film industry, as she has natural talent in front of the lens. She could be real rising star out of this film.  

Of all the actors though, the one who towers above them all is Madyanov as the poisonous mayor, Vadim. One part classic villain, on part modern pawn, all wrapped up in the saturated skin of a drunken control freak, he's the outlaw that needs ousting by the hot-shot lawyer. Madyanov embodies this charismatic power-monger with sincerity and aplomb.

Drunk from power and vodka, the mayor cuts a demanding presence and it's truly a shame that there wasn't more screen time for him. I could quite happily watch a film purely on Vadim.  

It's the strength in these characters, along with their complex chemistry, which tear me away from the obvious 'Book of Job' comparisons (impending house demolition equals Job's hurricane;  peering up to circular images equals questioning God for the perpetual despair, etc.), instead propelling me to liken it to a different type of movie altogether...

Picture the scene: Dmitriy is the loner in an old, familiar town. He's been invited to save the town by Nikolay, the drunk saloon owner, who is struggling to overcome the megalomaniac sheriff, Vadim. Wanting to own the the last piece of the pie, this regularly inebriated abuser of the law will stop at anything to overthrow Nikolay and take the bar as his own. Can the wandering hero Dmitriy stop this crazed marshall before it's too late?

Leviathan has wrongly been accused as a portrayal of stereotypes in the need for political-grooming. Yet, it is clearly more a literal 'Western' than trying to just cater for western palates, which is a far more international genre anyway, especially with its heritage in Japan's 'Chanbara' movies. That's a far romantic comparison, don't you think?

Admittedly, there is a bit of a dip in pace throughout the third quarter of the film, which says a lot when considering that it is actually fairly slow-paced. Stick with it though, as it is still a brilliantly rewarding piece. It may been seen as brave in its subject material, especially in the face of all of the controversy, however nothing can prepare for startling climax. A great example of ignoring the negative and listening to the real!

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