Winner of the BFI London Film Festival’s best film award and definitely one of my favourites of the festival, Leviathan is a tale of modern Russia, in turns hilarious, harsh and heartbreaking.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has created a film that carries its grand themes on small shoulders, focusing on one man’s battle with a corrupt politician. Zvyagintsev skilfully blends in enough humour to lull you into a false sense of security, so that when the film plunges into darkness, it’s that much more shocking.
Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is a mechanic whose family have lived in a small, barren village by the sea for generations. The environment is grey, full of striking landscapes and forbidding clouds. Decaying fishing boats slump in the harbour and on the beach, the skeleton of a whale lies like the remains of a prehistoric creature, its bones slowly being bleached by the light. Most of the villagers live in small, dingy concrete apartments, a far cry from the beautiful house Kolya has built with his own hands. So it’s easy to see how quickly Kolya’s world crumbles when the local mayor decides he wants the land for himself and Kolya is faced with a compulsory purchase order that will leave him, his attractive young wife and his teenage stepson with no option but to move to the concrete bunkers. He has to fight back. But bringing in an old army friend to give him legal advice has consequences way beyond anything he could have foreseen.
The mayor has more than a touch of Boris Johnson about him, a bumbling buffoon drunk on power and vodka – a dangerous combination. He’s brilliantly played by Roman Madyanov who pretty much steals every scene he’s in. Serebryakov is superb too as Kolya, a man who is desperately clinging on to everything around him and unable to comprehend or battle the injustices being heaped upon him. Injustice, it appears, is the one thing you can’t fight in modern Russia.
The desolate, beautiful landscapes provide the perfect frame for Leviathan’s stoic but fragile characters. And Zvyagintsev’s habit of letting the big dramatic moments happen off-screen only adds to the atmosphere of tension and helplessness.
Leviathan blew me away, it’s one of those films you immediately want to see again once you’ve got your breath back – full of grand themes and powerful imagery, and giving a harsh reminder of the corruption at every level in Putin’s Russia.
Aside from Mystery Train, and Ghost Dog, I always feel I should enjoy Jim Jarmusch’s films more. He knows how to put super-cool on film, and he can create a mood effortlessly, but frankly I like a bit more of a story. Only Lovers Left Alive is no exception, although it’s probably his best for a while. It’s also all the L-words you can think of: louche, languid, listless, lyrical… and slightly long.
It’s the story of Adam and Eve, two vampires who got married centuries ago and are finding the being around forever aspect of vampiring a bit wearying. They are quite bored of each other but still somehow madly in love. Tilda Swinton’s Eve is hanging out in Tangier, exquisitely dressed and gliding through the streets at night like an exotic spectre while being brought top notch blood by Kit Marlow (John Hurt). Tom Hiddleston’s Adam, on the other hand, looks like he hasn’t had a bath for a while and is utterly fed up with the state of the world and particularly repelled by the ‘zombies’ as he refers to the unfortunate living people he is forced to hang around with. I suppose if you’d spent your life chewing the fat with Byron and writing symphonies for Schubert you might find the average Joe a bit less than cultured too. He fills his lonely hours roaming round a crumbling Detroit mansion filled with expensive guitars and vinyl, ever the rock star, and fretting about what will become of the things he loves in a world hell-bent on destruction.
Eve flies to Detroit to lift Adam from his despair, and the pair spend their nights driving round this beautifully desolate city – the images of downtown Detroit are nothing short of stunning – and deep in conversation about their past. It takes the arrival of Mia Wasikowska as Adam’s sister Ava to liven things up – she prefers to drink blood fresh from the source (oopsy) which causes a spot of bother. She disappears too soon, sadly.
Only Lovers Left Alive is beautiful to look at, easily has the two hippest vampires ever seen on screen – and it’s very funny. But to be honest, the ten minutes of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! that I missed to get to this screening on time weighed heavy on me.