Monday, February 22, 2010

Barber of Siberia (1998)

Here’s a grand romance on a huge scale (that was made even bigger by a directors cut). It’s the sort of tragic romance of lost true love that women swoon over. It’s a grand pot boiler of a film that I like so much that I’ve picked up three different copies. It’s something that should have been huge but because it bombed when it was first shown it was sent to near oblivion.

The story I heard goes that back in 1998 this Russian lensed, multi-national co-production was brought into Cannes with high hopes, great word of mouth and the expectations that this was going to be a huge international blockbuster. The thinking was how could it not be when it had one of the hottest actresses in the world at the time in Julia Ormond, and it was mostly in English for easier international sales. When the film ended its first screening it was all over but the shouting with the film’s high hopes dashed and the film consigned to a dust bin of sorts. The director, Nikita Mikhalkov, didn’t direct another film until last years Oscar nominee 12, a very good re-imagining the story of 12 Angry Men as a story set in one of the breakaway Russian republics.

I don’t know why since it’s a really good little epic. Actually it was passed off to me as one of the best films you’ve never seen.

Set at the turn of the 20th century before the Russian Revolution, the plot of the film has Julia Ormond going to Russia with Richard Harris in the hopes of making their fortune. Harris is an inventor who has come up with an automated means of chopping down trees, making him essentially the Barber of Siberia. Ormond in the meantime travels around charming everyone she meets. Eventually she takes up with a young military cadet and what happens after that is the story.

I really like this film. It’s a grand romance of the highest order. To be certain it’s a bit soapy and it does have a touch of pot boiler in it, but this is a sumptuous film with a story that Hollywood and the rest of the world really doesn’t try to tell any more. I carries you away to a time and a place and it touches and tugs on your heart strings.

Think of it as Dr Zhivago meets Gone with the Wind meets (pick a grand romance.) This was filmed all over Russia with a sense of detail that is only dreamed of by most producers. Rarely has any film ever so neatly put you in a time and a place as this one does. I’ve put this film on just so I can watch the scenery go by.

The central story of Julia Ormond and her young lover is magical. You genuine like the characters and care about them. Ormond’s brash heroine doing what she wants; flaunting convention is a wonderful modern woman who doesn’t see what’s coming. Oleg Menshikov as her paramour is note perfect as the charming young man whose passion for the girl will be his downfall. Its an exhilarating ride that will leave you heartbroken in the end.

I really like this film a great deal. Its so good that I’ve been on the look out for the longer directors cut which is said to run 100 minutes longer than the 3 hour theatrical cut. I love the idea of spending more time with these people.

Currently unavailable as a US release the film is available from Amazon e-sellers as an import of the UK . I believe the film is also still available from Russia on the Ruscico label (the subtitles on this one are a bit strange in that the choice is to have them on all the time or not at all- an annoying prospect for a film that’s 90% or so in English. Worse, if you want to switch back and forth you have to go to out of the movie). I own both versions and prefer the UK import.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your review.

    The Barber of Siberia is a truly magnificent work of art! I completely share your sense of awe and bemusement at its official reception. Perhaps it was too deep for the shallow minds of Hollywood.