D: Shamim Sarif / 93m
Cast: Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Thure Lindhardt, Anthony Head
One of the things that never happened in the Golden Age of Cinema was an author being given the opportunity to make a movie of one of their novels or stories. Some were employed to adapt their novels and stories, but none were ever allowed to step behind the camera as well and actually direct the movie. Nowadays, this isn’t so unusual, but it’s also still not very prevalent. So step forward Shamim Sarif, author and movie maker, who has been making movies from her novels from the very beginning. She is possibly unique in this way, and has gained a very good reputation from working on both sides of the creative arena. Despite the Falling Snow is the third movie she’s made from one of her novels, and while she may be well regarded in some quarters as the perfect person to adapt her work – after all, who knows it better than she? – the finished product here isn’t quite the testament to her talents as a director.
The movie begins in New York in 1961 with the defection of a Russian government official called Sasha (Reid). As he’s helped to escape from his Russian handlers, he asks about his wife, Katya (Ferguson). She’s back in Moscow, but his new, US handlers have no idea where she is or what has happened to her. Fast forward thirty years and Sasha (Dance) is a successful restaurateur who has a niece, Lauren (also Ferguson) who is the spitting image of Katya, and who wants to travel to Moscow to try and find out what happened to her aunt. Sasha refuses to go with her, though, so Lauren, who’s lucky enough to be an artist who’s been asked to mount an exhibition in Moscow, heads off by herself.
While Lauren’s story plays out in 1991, Katya’s story plays out in tandem from 1959 to 1961. Katya is a teaching assistant who’s also helping her friend and government official Misha (Jackson-Cohen) steal secrets and pass them on to the Americans. At a party she meets Sasha but is unimpressed by him. It’s only when Misha persuades her to get close to Sasha because of his position in the Kremlin that she finds herself falling in love with him. Meanwhile, in 1991, Lauren meets and befriends a journalist called Marina (Traue) who helps her in finding out about Katya. Marina learns that Misha (Head) is still alive, and they make plans to visit him. When they do they find he’s become an embittered, angry old man who wants nothing to do with them.
Back in 1961, Katya and Sasha wed, but she agonises over whether she should tell him she’s a spy. In 1991, Marina’s behaviour becomes suspicious, and the unexpected arrival of Sasha in Moscow prompts a revelation. Katya’s decision to tell Sasha leads to his agreeing to defect, but thirty years on only Misha holds the key to what happened to her.
A romantic drama set – partly – during a period of intense political and social upheaval, namely the early Sixties, Despite the Falling Snow has such a generic feel to it that it could have been made about any couple in any country at any time, and still have made the same kind of impact. This is thanks to Sarif’s uninspired, pedestrian direction, and a visual style that never rises above formulaic. It’s as if Sarif has forgotten to add the drama needed to make the narrative more than just a succession of events and scenes that show how two people came together and then were separated by fate in the form of expediency. Even when suspicion falls on the officials in the Kremlin, including Sasha and Misha, it’s a moment where real terror at being found out translates instead as a mild concern. Misha is almost fatalistic about the whole thing, a reaction that not even the talented Jackson-Cohen can make convincing; this man should be even more scared than he’s been already.
But if the steady stream of narrative downplaying that infuses the scenes in early Sixties Russia also makes those scenes feel awkward and inconsistent, then spare a thought for those set in 1991. Sarif makes reference to the Berlin Wall having come down two years earlier, but her new Moscow is an uneasy mix of contemporary US stylings and Russian forebearance, as evidenced by Marina’s designer clothing and old Misha’s tower block abode. The juxtaposition jars, and adds to the overall feeling that Sarif wants her characters to look glamorous against the concrete backdrop of post-Stalinist Russia (Katya seems never to be without her red lipstick). The visual conceit is highlighted by Sarif’s decision to have Katya and Sasha, and Lauren and Marina, walk along the same snow-laden stretch of riverside pavement at different times, but instead of creating an echo of past events, it appears to be more of a budgetary deference than a creative decision.
Elsewhere, narrative developments that appear out of nowhere are treated as if they are absolutely necessary to the overall plot, and that includes a left-field decision to have Lauren and Marina begin a sexual relationship. Old Sasha’s willingness to stay home out of harm’s way is overturned by the contents of a fax, while Old Misha’s decision to spill the beans about what happened to Katya is spurred on by feelings of guilt, and that old chestnut, a terminal illness. And when the viewer does find out what happened to Katya, Sarif handles it in such a hamfisted way that any emotional weight the scene might – or should – have engendered with said viewer, is lost before the scene’s even begun.
A lacklustre movie then, one that doesn’t even aim particularly high, but which does feature another of Charles Dance’s supporting roles (is he semi-retired now, is that what’s going on?) and a level of political naïvete that further dilutes the drama that isn’t really there. On the performance side, Ferguson is unable to make much of either role, as Sarif never allows the viewer to engage with them as anything other than under-developed non-characters. Reid is earnest but treading in a pool so shallow it’s practically evaporated, while Traue is allowed to look moody and resentful in equal measure even when she’s kissing Ferguson. Dance and Head bring a degree of old-time gravitas to the proceedings, but even they can’t avoid the pitfalls that are inherent in the script. On this showing, Sarif needs some more time to clarify her goals in making such a movie, and maybe next time, getting someone else to direct.
Rating: 4/10 – Sixties Moscow never looked cleaner, quieter, or more family friendly than it does in this movie, and that’s despite several efforts to make it look as if it’s not brand new; as a drama it never gets started, despite the best efforts of its cast, and by the end you’ll only want to know what happened to Katya just so that you can move on in (roughly) the same way everyone else does: without too much fuss.