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Statsky Sovetnik (Councilor of State)
Tchaikovsky Cultural Center 
Directed by Filipp Yankovsky. Written by Boris Akunin. Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Mashkov, Oleg Menshikov, Nikita Mikhalkov. Russia: 125 min (cinema version)/208 min (TV version). English subtitles.

By Sam Gerrans

Review top sheet: a fast-moving, somewhat bewildering caper featuring Fandorin, the Russian Holmes-Poirot hybrid mutation.

The author, Boris Akunin, is famous for his highly successful series of books with Fandorin as the centrepiece who masterfully deduces his way through carefully constructed – some say contrived – sets of circumstances not unlike a three-dimensional crossword puzzle. This film is cut of the same cloth. But does it work?

Yes and no.

Will you like this film?

Yes, if:you’re a Tretyakovskaya Gallery enthusiast and culture vulture keen to up your ratio of Russian-to-Western film intake (or at least make that one Russian film) and are willing to do whatever it takes to say you’ve seen one
No, if: you don’t understand Russian fluently and are relying on the subtitles to keep you in the picture
Maybe, if: you’re an Akunin junky – and there are plenty – and are keen to know how it all works on the big screen

Comments: this film starts well, has a great cast and – visually, at least – is tastefully and skilfully put together. But the fact that the cinema version is essentially a cut-down version of the real version (i.e. what will be shown on TV once the cinema demand peters out) really tells. The strain of such a mammoth edit (a full quarter of the film) leaves the cinema experience sparse – even threadbare – in places.

Whoever engaged the subtitles translator should be shot at first light. It ought to be obvious, but quality written translations are only possible by a native speaker of the target language. But the producers of Russian films still think that if a first-year student delivers them an “English” translation featuring English words which he, the producer, personally doesn’t understand, then it must be okay. The trouble is, no one who really does speak English can understand it either.

Even with fluent Russian, the film is a jerky, uncompelling fiction fortified to some degree by Mikhalkov’s person charisma and idiosyncratic dialogue. Vladimir Mashkov makes an appearance, reheating the mad-dog intensity of his Ragozhin in the objectively excellent 2003 Russian production of “The Idiot”. Menshikov is reserved and controlled – as per type – but ultimately uninteresting. I respect and like him as an actor, but his distant and cerebral Fandorin failed to engage me.

We can’t blame Akunin for being unaware of the excellent Western antidote to this entire genre in the person of the hopeless Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Pink Panther films. If he had been, he would have thought twice about giving Fandorin a Japanese martial arts expert as a houseboy. As soon as the oriental domestic sidekick came on, the Western section of the audience thought the same thing: Cato!

Then we were left half-expecting a swift descent into farce which never came.

Out-of-five star ratings:

• Story: **
• Dialogue: ****
• Substance: *
• Film craft: ****

Story comments: the film kicks us into the plot superbly in the first ten minutes, but it’s pretty touch-and-go thereafter.

Akunin is a writer, he’s not a screenwriter. They are different disciplines and I wonder whether he was really the man for the job of screenwriter here.

Be that as it may, the story failed to hold me – much of it being circumstantial, superficial and contrived – and I satisfied myself with Mikhalkov’s highly entertaining performance.

Dialogue comments: the dialogue is great. Funny, apposite, and in some ways descriptive of Russian attitudes in general.

As is common with whodunnits, characters don’t so much arc as unpeel which Mikhalkov’s character, Pozharsky, does in a most engaging manner.

The rest of the cast – and their related roles – flail about in an attempt to imbue their worlds with significance, but I wasn’t convinced.

Substance comments: whodunnits don’t really need theme, but they do need plot. The problem in this case is that it’s all too complex and convoluted for us to get our teeth into the full meat of the plot because we are working with a stripped-down version of the real, fuller version for TV.

Instead, we satisfy ourselves with personality, namely that of Mikhalkov’s Pozharsky.

Now, Mikhalkov has a view, and whether he was technically the director or not, you can be sure he was top dog on set. And he’ll be damned if he’s going to charm us for 125 minutes without giving us a good dose of what, for him, constitutes the chief causes of the beleaguered state of Mother Russia. It’s a form of ranting and you can indulge in it if you’re as accomplished as he is.

But I wish he would stop. My feeling is that if Mikhalkov stopped trying to save the Russian people he would start making better films. His thesis is that if everyone got with the Mikhalkov program national suffering could be reduced.

I beg to differ on the basis of national character rather than politics. Eight years in this country have shown me that – whatever they might profess – deep down, Russians have an ingrained passion for avoidable tragedy. If they didn’t they would learn to drive properly and wear seatbelts. Without the constant possibility of imminent and superfluous calamity something is just not quite comfortable in the Russian mind. At the very least they get bored. And no amount of Mikhalkov cinema is going to induce them to stop – perhaps unconsciously – straining to experience something which, in truth, they like. We all strive to make our lives significant the best we can, and this is but one tack.

The great works of Russian literature and cinema explore and demonstrate this strain of weirdness in all its festering destructiveness. Historically, however, the works which have seriously tried to effect a change of any kind have been uniformly mediocre.

Film craft comments: beautifully shot. Perhaps not quite on a par with “The Return”, but still a highly pleasing – though somewhat absorbedly patriotic – visual experience.

A taste of the story: Fandorin (Oleg Menshikov) gets drawn into a distilled version of what must have been at some point a more convincing and fully-baked whodunnit (not to mention, whosdoingit) plot.


Sam Gerrans is a freelance writer and translator: http://samgerrans.com.

25.04.05
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