The Barber of Siberia

dir Nikita Mikhalkov
scr Rustam Ibragimbekov, Nikita Mikhalkov
with Julia Ormond, Oleg Menshikov, Richard Harris, Alexey Petrenko, Vladimir Ilyin, Marat Basharov, Alexander Yakovlev, Mac MacDonald, Marina Neelova, Anna Mikhalkova, Avangard Leontiev, Daniel Olbrychski
Pathe 99/Russia 3 out of 5 stars

Review by Rich Cline
A sweeping romantic epic set around the turn of the last century, The Barber of Siberia is a hugely ambitious portrait of pre-revolution Russia layered over a complex love story. And fortunately--since it clocks in at three hours long--it's a lively, colourful, entertaining film.

The story is told as a woman in 1905 Massachusetts writes a letter to a West Point cadet, telling him a sprawling story that begins in 1885 when a young American woman Jane (Ormond) meets a sparky Russian cadet Andrei (Menshikov) on a train bound for Moscow. The two hit it off immediately, but as Andrei enters military school, Jane goes to work with her father (Harris) to develop his forestry machine, which he calls the Barber of Siberia. Her role is to secure funding from General Radlov (Petrenko) by any means possible (wink wink), but when Radlov falls for her, she finds herself in an unexpected love triangle. And of course there are lots of other secrets gurgling under the surface. And events that will drive our heroes together and far apart over the next 30 years.

Mikhalkov directs the film with a real sense of scope and history--cast of thousands, terrific attention to detail, wonderful directoral touches. It's also a very energetic film, full of hilarious moments and a continual stream of real-life humour that makes the characters and situations extremely interesting and engaging. In this sense, it works both in the tiny, intimate moment and in the overall epic scale. And the romance itself is very nicely paced and played. Menshikov is especially magnetic as Andrei, a young man who hasn't yet learned that there are repercussions for his passions. Where the film falters is in the letter-writing scenes (is she writing a full-length Russian novel?), which are a bit clunky and obvious. Despite a very nice performance, Ormond's mannerisms and accent wobble, making it hard to take her seriously. The plot's Big Surprises aren't terribly surprising, really. And it seems a bit far-fetched that everyone in 1880s Moscow speaks fluent English. Like Istvan Szabo's Sunshine, this makes a terrific story more accessible to Western filmgoers even as it renders the whole thing vaguely artificial.

[12--adult themes and situations, language] 2.Jun.00
UK release 9.Jun.00
Opening film: Cannes Film Festival 99

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2000 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall