Synopsis: In 1941 the German invasion of Russia leads to the siege of Leningrad, a two year long military campaign designed to literally starve the city. In the midst of the suffering an English newspaper reporter finds herself trapped, unbeknownst to her American reporter boyfriend, between the German guns and the Soviet security system that cannot admit it erred in reporting her dead.
The Eastern Front, as seen through Western eyes.
World War II’s Russian campaign has produced no shortage of films attempting to depict the sheer savagery of the Eastern Front, from Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron in 1977, to Joseph Vilsmaier’s Stalingrad in 1993. Like the latter, Aleksandr Buravsky’s Leningrad is situated in another key city, this time the former Romanov capital (St Petersburg) that was the scene of an 872-day siege that became a quest to survive with virtually no supplies, by the city’s starving soldiers and inhabitants.
It’s difficult, however, to truly appreciate the moral weight of the tale, because it is filtered through the experiences of an English reporter, Kate Davis (Mira Sorvino), whose day trip to the city to write despatches ends with her trapped amongst the civilian population and declared dead by the Soviet security apparatus. The movie believes that suffering is only legitimate when you have reaction shots of a beautiful westerner – it’s a version of the colonial instincts that have long dogged American filmmaking.
Kate, and more so her boyfriend and fellow war correspondent Phil Parker (Gabriel Byrne), don’t have fleshed-out roles. Sorvino, groping her way around a lilac English accent, is asked for pity, anger and defiance, but the sharper turn is by Olga Sutulova as Nina Tsvetkova, a Jean Seberg-like presence who dominates from the first scene onwards, playing an NKVD trooper who furiously orders a company of barely armed conscripts to attack the German forces. Nina’s hatred for the Germans makes her blind to the cruelty she endorses, but what could have been an interesting story is sidelined when Kate’s blonde nobility rights her ways.
Buravsky stages some competent set-pieces on vast outdoor locations, but he reaches for the tropes of epic cinema – David Lean passed down through multiple generations – too easily. Knowing that Sorvino will spend most of the movie wrapped up against the freezing Russian winter, he shoots her first scene at a Moscow nightclub where she is squeezed into the kind of red dress that Howard Hughes would have designed for Jane Russell. Leningrad is full of horrific images, but that’s the one that truly rankles.
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