7 / 10
There are three things you need to know about Leviathan before deciding whether to watch it.
1. It has subtitles. Luckily they are in English. But still, “Subtitles!?” you say, “if I wanted to read in my spare time, I’d play Words with Friends.” Maybe you say that.
2. There is absolutely no one famous in it. Not even Liam Neeson. They are all Russian people. Aleksey Serebryakov (try saying that with a mouthful of popcorn) looks a bit like an older, grumpier Neil Patrick Harris, but that’s about as close as it gets.
3. Despite 1. and 2., or maybe because of them, Leviathan is a very good film.
It’s set in a cold, grey, salty coastal town in northern Russia. That’s why all the people are Russian. This is Kolya’s home and he loves it. Kolya is a simple mechanic with a pretty wife and a bratty son, but he owns some prime real estate. A weathered old shack perched alone on a cliff above the waves, which he built with his own hands on the land where his father once lived, and his grandfather before that. Kolya’s happy enough. He takes his son to school, he eats his wife’s pirogi, he fixes his policemen friends’ trucks and they pay him in wodka. He drinks the wodka.
But then something happens. It had to or this wouldn’t be a movie. It would be an Allianz life insurance commercial. What happens is that the town’s fat, crooked Mayor (crooked as in corrupt, he’s not like actually bendy; fat as in fat) takes a liking to Kolya’s patch. He decides he’s going to compulsorararily acquire the property, knock down Kolya’s shack and build something of his own. He offers Kolya a small fistful of rubles for his trouble, tells him to pack his trunks, and, late one night, shows up on his doorstep drunk and flanked by goons just to rub in the whole nasty deal. Kolya is pissed. But that’s just the wodka. He’s also angry. As pissed and angry as… well, as a Russian.
Anywho, Kolya’s not going down without a fight, so he calls his hotshot lawyer comrade, Dmitri (of course), and asks him to catch a train from Moscow to join the cause. Dmitri agrees. He arrives bearing gifts. The most important is a folder containing damning evidence of the Mayor’s crookedness. The rest of the gifts are wodka.
Dmitri is a pretty good guy. He’s smart, handsome, brave and committed to finding justice for Kolya despite the unfair weight of corrupt authority pressing down on them. When his court pleas and stern letters fail, Dmitri marches right into the crooked Mayor’s office, slaps the dirt folder on his desk and says how do you like them apples. The Mayor does not like them apples, not one bit.
But we know Dmitri is a lawyer, so he has to have a flaw. And soon enough, he reveals it. You’re probably thinking it’s the wodka. It’s not. It’s the women. The woman, to be precise. Yep, Dmitri wants some of Kolya’s wife’s pirogi. And she’s quite happy to oblige. This, predictably, complicates things. Classic Russia.
Some people (you know who you are) are calling Leviathan Russia’s version of The Castle. This is ridiculous. No one is buying jousting sticks here; no one is making sponge cake. Dmitri is not a womanising version of Dennis Denuto. Sure, there is a property dispute at the centre of both films, but so there is in Up and Avatar. No one is calling Avatar Pandora’s version of The Castle …or are they? No, they are not.
It should not come as a surprise – because, well, Russia – but Leviathan is cold and dark from beginning to end. Because we are conditioned by The Castle, we keep expecting things to get better. Dmitri to kick a photocopier. Kolya to tear down the Mayor’s front gate and drive off cheering down the street. Eric Bana to appear. But the Russians – Putin and Marat Safin aside – are not famed for their comedy. While there is the odd moment of chuckle-worthy Soviet-style humour – generally a homely fisherwomen clubbing her husband over the back of the head – for the most part, Leviathan just gets colder and darker.
Being a Russian film by a Russian director with an all Russian cast and set in Russia, it’s reasonable to expect Leviathan to be fairly, well, ‘Russian’. And it is. In fact, Leviathan is a hatted dancing bear and a tank short of a Dave Letterman or The Simpsons parody of Russia.
For one, everyone is drunk all off the time. Apart from the occasional breakfast beer here and there, it’s all wodka. Wodka in shot glasses, wodka in plastic cups, wodka from the bottle. “Let’s drink” is said so often that I eventually realised that I’d learnt how to say it in Russian. davayte vyp’yem! I didn’t even look that up.
In addition, almost every character is a mechanic, a fisherman, a priest, a corrupt government official, or a combination of those professions.
In a fairly pivotal scene, a mechanic and a couple of crooked policemen take their fisherwoman wives on a nice picnic. By the lake, the men drink cups of wodka and shoot at rows of empty bottles with AK47s. “Our crazy Russian husbands,” say the women as they roll their eyes, drink wodka and skewer raw meat.
Anyway, while it may not be a Visit Russia advertisement, Leviathan is a good film. The characters are raw and real, the setting is bleak but beautiful, the themes – power, morality, faith and loyalty – run deep, and the dark twists and turns are unpredictable.
Finally – ‘Leviathan’. What’s that all about? Well, there is a whale skeleton on the beach, and the leviathan also features in the Bible’s Book of Job. Kolya, like old mate Job, suffers despite his righteousness. Unconquerable evil rises from the depths. On the other hand, Leviathan could just be the brand of wodka. Hard to say, I only speak a bit of Russian.