Novy Arbat is the worst street in Moscow. It’s like the neon-scarred main drag in every movie about the Scary Future, and there’s a big multiplex movie theater on it where last night I saw the #1 movie in Russia, Admiral.
Admiral is a spectacular- naval-battlescene-filled historical epic about the career and lovelife of Alexandr Kolchak, who commanded the Black Sea fleet during WWI before becoming a dictator in the White army during the Russian Civil War. It has already outgrossed its Russian-record-breaking 20 million dollar budget. The producers of this movie were clearly going for ‘Russian Titanic‘ — the film’s tagline is “For love is strong as death” — so they tacked a thwarted-love storyline onto a movie about a mostly-failed military career unspooling during what has to be one of the most confusing periods in recent world history.
The resulting movie is a riveting, hilarious disaster, and I don’t think I’m condescending to it by saying so. I’m not at all like “oh, those silly Russians tried to make a Hollywood-style blockbuster out of tinfoil and string” — those silly Russians did make an entirely competent Hollywood-style blockbuster, and those are, at best, riveting disasters.
The battle scenes are pretty awesome, though! The problem is that our hero and heroine — Kolchak and Anna Timirova, the wife of a fellow officer — are so chronically unsympathetic that you giggle and gag through their love scenes and root for the inevitable tragic death that will part them. And maybe you’re meant to. Maybe you are supposed to be so disgusted by this irritating couple’s decadent, deeply stupid affair that you start rooting for the Red Army, the movie’s putative villains! Maybe the movie — which, on its state-funded surface, would seem to be an obvs attempt to connect a glorious imperial past to a resurgent capitalist present by eliding the whole intervening communism thing — has a subversive secret agenda.
Or probably it doesn’t, I mean, I gagged at Leo and Kate on the prow of that other ship and cheered when Leo finally slipped underwater, a shot that’s quoted in Admiral after Kolchak is finally, after like 2.5 hours of movie, executed by a firing squad and thrown into a frozen river. And that’s a fairly subtle example of Admiral hewing to the Titanic model — the movie ends with Old Anna, in 1964, fondling a historical artifact and fantasizing a never-danced waltz with Kolchak in a gleaming ballroom. “My one regret is that we never got to dance,” one or the other of them had said earlier.
I would add to that list of regrets the regret that they never got to do much of anything except stare at each other moonily, despite ample opportunity to steam up the windows of their Trans-Siberian railroad car. Why, in a movie that doesn’t skimp on the bayonetings and unanesthetized choppings-off of frostbite-blackened toes, can the protagonists not do it? Maybe this prudishness is connected to the movie’s insistent religiosity — not a scene goes by when someone doesn’t cross himself or kneel to pray or kiss an icon.
Probably, though, the film’s producers just understood that the dude who plays Kolchak is no Leonardo Dicaprio — instead, he’s this middle-aged, notably big-eared Russian dude. His affair with Anna Timireva begins when they spot each other across a crowded ballroom and somebody breaks a champagne glass and it’s on. They flirt shamelessly — I don’t know exactly what they say to each other because my translator was focusing on explaining what side the Czechs were on and stuff — and Kolchak’s wife and kid and Anna’s husband are not happy about it at all. Then, at regular intervals over the course of the next few battle scenes, they meet in beautiful parks with the leaves falling in the rain in order to stare at each other balefully and talk about how they must never see each other again. “Alexandr Vasileyvich,” she says to him meaningfully, over and over again. Can’t she just call him Sasha like everyone else does? She is a terrible, terrible actress. A commenter on Imdb’s message board puts it nicely:
“Now about a love story. To what genius has come to mind to invite this actress Liza Boyarskaya. I certainly understand that her daddy the fine actor, but it not so is often descended. Its game is simply awful. It is a pity that in Russia so cinema clans are strong. Well and so, Liza Boyarskaya such sensation that in first half of film plays the full silly woman. That, a silly smile with glass eyes does not understand even elementary things. In second half of film she repeats «I love you, Alexander Vasilevich» some times for a film, but, apparently, that to her all these recognitions are absolutely indifferent.”
Still, I have her woodenness to thank for my favorite moment in the movie, when she told Kolchak about her suspicion that “Water and war are the only women you love” and I kind of understood what she was saying. (Rosetta Stone just got around to teaching me about love.)