Her family thinks she’s a flight attendant, but she’s serving up bullets instead of minibar bottles and hot towels.
Travis Johnson

24 Feb 2022 - 5:08 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2022 - 5:08 PM

When Hope* (Viktoriya Isakova) travels for work, her musician husband Misha (Aleksey Morozov) and moody teenage daughter Olga (Veronika Kornienko) don’t bat an eyelid. After all, she’s a business class flight attendant whose job can take her away for extended periods at short notice, which makes it a perfect cover for her actual job: killing the enemies of the shady criminal syndicate that sprang her from prison some 18 years ago.

In exchange for her freedom and at the behest of her handler, Leo (Aleksandr Kuzmin), Hope has been a ruthlessly efficient assassin for her entire adult life, her first kills being the criminals who murdered her parents. But a life of murder and secrecy takes its toll, and Hope wants out. Can she extricate herself from the criminal demi-monde and, more importantly, can she do so with her family intact?

Clocking in at 16 half-hour episodes, Hope is a Russian language riff on Luc Besson’s classic 1990 French thriller La Femme Nikita, which saw Anne Parillaud as the titular street kid turned assassin. As a narrative model, it’s proved robust and easily translatable: we’ve seen American versions of La Femme Nikita (1993’s Point of No Return and two separate TV series), Chinese (1991’s Black Cat), South Korean (2017’s The Villainess), and to bring us full circle, there’s an American version set in Russia (the 2018 Jennifer Lawrence vehicle Red Sparrow). There is something about a glamorous, seductive female assassin that we return to.

But Hope upends a lot of our expectations. Gone are Luc Besson’s sleek visuals and style-over-substance story choices. Hope is set in modern-day Russia, with flashbacks to the immediately post-Soviet 1990s showing Hope’s recruitment and training, and so it’s a much grittier and more downbeat affair, sharing more DNA with John Le Carre’s espionage novels than your more mainstream action thriller.

The series also delves more deeply into the psychological toll that leading a violent double life takes on our protagonist. The terrible irony of the concept is that if Hope had served her prison sentence, she would now be free. Instead, she’s bound to Leo, a much more ruthless and less paternal figure than we might expect in this role, who compels her to do whatever it takes to get the job done. If that means posing as a prostitute and doing drugs with the son of a potential target, so be it. If that means murdering a lovelorn banker in a deserted park, so be it.

As a result, the boundaries between her personal and professional life are becoming blurred, as shown in the second episode where, fresh from a mission, she shows up at one of Misha’s gigs still dressed as a prostitute and under the influence, embarrassing Olga. It’s clear that Hope is starting to unravel, but the question is whether she can extricate herself and her loved ones from her double life before she completely collapses.

Which makes the proceedings sound almost unbearably grim, but Hope is shot through with a kind of fatalistic and very Russian romanticism. Director Elena Hazanova shoots the proceedings in a striking red and green colour palette, lending the dirty alleys and downmarket hotel rooms that Hope stalks a kind of heightened, almost surreal quality. The series never shies away from the brutal realities of its heroine’s trade, but Viktoriya Isakova’s weary, nuanced performance keeps us absolutely rapt. Thriller fans who are in the market for something different should definitely not give up Hope.

* The character’s name, Nadia, has been translated into Hope for English-speaking audiences.

Hope is now streaming at SBS On Demand.

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