DEAR COMRADES – movie review

DEAR COMRADES (Дораги товарищи)

Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Andrei Konchalovsky
Writer: Andrei Konchalovsky, Elena Kiseleva
Cast: Julia Vysotskaya, Andrei Guseve, Yulia Burova, Sergei Erlish, Vlaislav Komarov
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/28/21
Opens: January 29, 2021 in virtual cinema. February 5, 2021 streaming

Poster

Not only political candidates, but whole countries embarking on a new system of government promise the world in poetry and then govern in prose. In the U.S., a middle-class revolution beginning in 1776 seemed to guarantee that our nation would be the shining city on the hill, but slavery, the Civil War, and countless brutal and unnecessary wars of our various administrations in Washington belie those ideals. So it was with the Soviet Union.

Smarting under the tsarist monarchies that gave wealth and power to a small elite, the Russians fought through two revolutions that took the country out of World War One in violation of a treaty, soon winning a war between the Reds and the Whites. The Whites wanted moderate reforms, the Reds total overthow of the old system. The aim? A paradise of workers and farmers as symbolized by the hammer and sickle. Though Stalin built up a country that emerged from feudalism to win a war against Hitler, on the domestic side, no administration there gave the workers and farmers anything resembling a paradise. Instead, the Soviet Union forbade strikes, even gunning down workers with justifiable grievances though they might be unarmed, simply letting off steam about price increases on food and cuts in salaries.

“Dear Comrades” takes hold of this concept and through narrative film rather than documentary gives the moviegoing public a view in black and white to emulate the times in 1962. You might think the Soviet government would cover up a tragedy in which scores of people were gunned down for striking and others were compelled to keep the matter secret lest they suffer torture and execution. And cover up they did, except that now, in our year, Andrei Konchalovsky was given the freedom to expose the oppression of the workers 68 years ago, an unusual work for the man whose previous film, “Sin,” is about the life of the Italian artist Michelangelo. More up his alley is his “Paradise,” a World War 2 drama involving a Russian member of the French resistance, a French collaborator, and a high-ranking German officer.

Lyudmila (Julia Vysotskaya)anchors “Dear Comrades” in the city of Novocherkassk in the story of an actual event. A thousand workers walked out at a Soviet factory, which would make the local members of the Communist party look bad and lose their cushy jobs, so the city council, as it were, moved to blame the higher-ups; perhaps the KGB, maybe the army. Their jobs were on the line, as tensions escalated as both the Red Army and the KGB (secret police) fired live bullets at the demonstrators.

Lyudmila gets special favors as a party member (some are more equal than others) such as passing by a crowd of people trying to fill up their food baskets the normal way while Lyudmila heads into the back room for salami and the like. She is a Stalinist, believes Khrushchev is likely to cozy up to the Soviet Union’s adversaries. In fact she is more than happy to see the strikers shot dead, though her liberal daughter Svetka (Yulia Burova) wants to demonstrate with the strikers. Lyudmila is horrified that her daughter might be among the scores of people killed by snipers from the army and the KGB. She searches the morgue and when bodies disappear from there presumably driven to the countryside, she is all but certain that her daughter has been buried. She has the good luck of being befriended by a KGB man sympathetic to her cause.

Throughout the film we watch as the local people are made to sign statements of confidentiality: the shootings never happened and neither did the strike. This is a deadly serious drama: The closest thing to humor in the movie is the sight of Lyudmila’s grandfather who proudly puts on the army costume he used when he defended the tsar.

The big plus for the film is the sight of hundreds of extras hired by the movie company rather than having the studio resort to using archival shots. Here in the U.S. we continue to face a diminishing number of strikes given the economy and the purported easy of replacing recalcitrant workers. Yet more to the moment we cannot help thinking that the alt-right characters who invaded the Capitol on January 6th might have suffered a similar fate if our previous President gave the word, but given that the white supremacists are in bed with their billionaire leader, such could hardly befall them.

120 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B

RED JOAN – movie review

RED JOAN
IFC Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net with a Rotten Tomatoes link by: Harvey Karten
Director: Trevor Nunn
Screenwriter: Lindsay Shapero based on Jennie Rooney’s novel
Cast: Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Ben Miles, Tereza Srbrova
Screened at: Digital Arts, NYC, 3/13/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Red Joan Movie Poster

Tom Lehrer sang this ironic song in 1965 which goes in part…

First we got the bomb and that was good,
‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.
Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s O.K.,
‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way!

The idea that it’s fine with us in the West that Russia got the bomb becomes literally true in Trevor Nunn’s film “Red Joan.” The title character, Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), who is the fictional stand-in for the actual civil servant Melita Norwood, confesses after her arrest in 2000 that she was always a good British citizen though she handed nuclear secrets to Stalin. How so? Disgusted that the U.S. dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she believed that the best way to avoid future nuclear holocausts is to make sure that the two super powers would live together in relative peace. And they would live together in relative peace knowing that it would be self-destructive to drop atomic weapons on each other. And maybe she had a point since, mirabile dictu, throughout the Cold War, neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union dared to attack each other head-on.

Most of “Red Joan” finds the great Judi Dench in the background, brought back to the limelight now and then but spending most of the story illustrating the way that her youthful self (Sophie Cookson) is recruited by the KGB to transmit nuclear secrets from the labs of Great Britain into the hands of the Soviets. The story involves considerable romantic interludes, first between Joan and Leo Galich (Tom Hughes), a communist firebrand who in a rousing speech notes that as a Jew, he made the mistake of leaving the Soviet Union and going to Germany. Aware of Hitler’s atrocities, he is orating full speed in favor of the Russians. During his affair with Joan Stanley, the latter awed of her new boyfriend’s ability to agitate a crowd, we in the movie audience wonder to what extent he is really in love with Joan and to what extent he is simply using her to transmit documents from her job in a physics lab to Britain’s ally, the Soviet Union.

Still a virgin in 1938, Joan is befriended by Sonia (Tereza Srbova), like Leo a KGB agent, who encourages Joan to pursue her romance with Sonia’s cousin Leo. In that lab, she is an assistant to professor Max Davis (Stephen Campbell Moore) and becomes his lover though he is married to a woman who refuses to give him a divorce. The movie’s opening in the year 2000 finds Joan arrested by MI5, Britain’s CIA equivalent, defended by her lawyer son Nick (Ben Miles). Though a lawyer’s job is to defend clients, Joan’s own son is furious: “How could you do this?” he insists, while reluctantly taking on her case.

“Red Joan” as a spy story is more in line with the brainy types of heroes and villains you’d find in John Le Carre’s novels, books like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “A Legacy of Spies,” and “The Guardian,” weaving past and present. An example involves Peter Guillam, a disciple of George Smiley, now living out his retirement on the south coast of Brittany, then called to account by the British Secret Service about his role in the Cold War. There is nothing James Bond-ish in this film, much as we might secretly wish for explosions more damaging than those between Joan and her attorney son Nick. There is no need even to wonder about Judi Dench’s performance. She is perhaps among greatest actress of her generation, and surprisingly, young Sophie Cookson rises to the occasion with a stunning, understated role as the idealistic 20-year-old who may not have thought of giving secrets to Stalin to provide a balance of power, but because she had become a dedicated communist under Leo’s vivid encouragement.

The king’s English is spoken throughout, so no subtitles are needed for us Americans. Charlotte Walker’s costumes are spot on as is Cristina Crisali’s set design, both eliciting the vibes of the two time periods. Zac Nicholson films all in Cambridgeshire, England. This is a well-cast story, unshowy, that will lead to consider Joan’s quote “I was fighting for the living, I loved my country!” and making up your mind about whether she believed this in spite of being a spy for the Soviet Union for some fifty years. Jennie Rooney’s novel of the same name is available at Amazon for $14.38.

101 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B