Wednesday, August 7, 2019
'The Russia House': love in the time of glasnost
Based on a 1989 novel by John Le Carré, The Russia House was directed by Fred Schepisi and released on Christmas Day, 1990. It was, along with Red Heat, the last film to be shot before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in August 1991. The cast had great names: Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer as the leading couple, and supporting actors like Klaus Maria Brandauer, James Fox, Michael Kitchen and Nicholas Woodeson.
It deals heavily with politics, ideals and (of course) espionage, all in the brink of the glasnost led by Mikhail Gorbachov's government in the Soviet Union. Barley Scott Blair (Sean Connery), a British rusophile editor, meets with Dante (Klaus Maria Brandauer) during a writers reunion in Russia, where both agree on the same ideals for world peace, openness and discontent for governments. Some time later, a woman known as Katya Orlova (Michelle Pfeiffer), tries to find Barley to deliver him one of three manuscripts containing sensitive information including nuclear secrets from the USSR. She fails to meet Barley, but hands it in to an associate of him, who -also unable to find him and concerned about the content of the papers- resorts to the British Intelligence. The British find Barley exiled in Lisbon. They convince him to travel to Russia and make contact with Katya in order to get to Dante, verify the information and get the other manuscripts. Barley reluctantly agrees, however things will turn dangerous when he begins to fall in love with Katya.
However, the key of the story relies heavily on love. "Unselfish love, grown up love. Mature, absolute, thrilling love," in the words Barley uses to declare his feelings to Katya. Their story is beautifully written and their love really feels natural, without a sense of adventure or the usual oversexualization that movies have nowadays. In fact, their only sex scene is shown offscreen and both are dressed when they get horizontal. Despite the 28-year difference between Connery and Pfeiffer and not taking advantage of the fact that the Scottish actor was looking impressively good at 60, all the scenes between Barley and Katya have this sense of warmness and caring which gives a sense of authenticity to everything.
Sean Connery convincingly plays the bohemian Barley, an idealist, somewhat anarchist intellectual and jazz lover. The kind of man you would find in a literary club or a library, who enjoys a simple and modest life and has complete disregard for politics or money: "If there is to be hope, we must all betray our countries. We have to save each other, because all victims are equal. And none is more equal than others." Michelle Pfeiffer also did a perfect job portraying a working-class Russian woman, with three children to care for, discreetly dressed and with more sweetness than sex appeal. Likewise, her Russian accent is incredibly convincing and there are a good number of scenes where she talks (dialogue is a big part of the film), so that's an effort deserving a proper recognition. Richard Macdonald's sets for Katya's home showcase how modest her life is: a rather urbane flat with a shower that isn't working properly and she has to fix with a hammer. Those little details also sum up to give a good reflection of the late 1980s Russia which was starting to slowly leave Communism behind. "They just want to be like us," Barley admits to the British agents controlling him.
The Palace Square in St. Petersburg (then known as Leningrad), was one of the scenarios of the film, and director of photography Ian Baker takes full advantage of the wideness of the square and the details of the monuments and statues surrounding the place as Barley meets Dante, another role brilliantly played by Klaus Maria Brandauer who reunites with Connery seven years after the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again. "You are wearing grey today, Barley. My father was sent to prison by grey men. He was murdered by men who wore grey uniforms. Grey men ruined my beautiful profession, and take care, or they will ruin you too," the hopeless Dante tells Barley concerned that he might been used by politicians and civil servants, which he doesn't trust at all when it comes to delivering the manuscript, and hopes that Barley can make this information be published on his own without spies and governments in the middle.
Composed by Jerry Goldsmith, the film's soundtrack is a character on itself. A beautiful mix of piano, strings, floute and saxophone which gives the story a special gravitas. In fact, given that there is much talking going on the movie and that at times the pace is quite slow, it is Goldsmith's score that saves it. The main motif of the score, which in the soundtrack album serves for "Alone In The World", performed by Patti Austin (lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), works beautifully during a scene where Barley takes a train from Moscow to Leningrad and different panoramas of Russia are shown through the window, from the city itself to rural regions and other sights.
The biggest flaw in The Russia House is perhaps the pacing and structure. There is too much talking and so many words generate confussion. Other things aren't quite clear: the "Russia House" is the informal name of the section of the British Secret Service devoted to watch the actions taking place in the country, basically to spy them, but there is never a satisfactory explaination of this. However, considering the overall beauty of the movie, this can be forgiven. If you want to watch a meaningful romantic movie with elements of espionage and Russian politics involved, this one is certainly recommended.