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The Barber of Siberia  

Review: written 2006

Uneven, flawed but beautiful and fascinating

This is a long, unevenly directed story which really wants to be an epic romance and almost, but not quite succeeds. It is undoubtedly beautiful. The scenery both in Moscow and also in the scenes in Siberia is a suitably breathtaking stage for a tragic story of romance set against turn of the Century Russia. Julia Ormond is also ravishing here, and her performance underpins the success of the movie. Her Russian counterpart, the young Russian cadet Tolstoy (no relation to the author, as he frequently has to explain) with whom she falls in love when he stumbles into her train compartment, played by Oleg Menshikov, is less successful. His performance lurches somewhat heavy handedly from slapstick clown to would be troubled young man with deep feelings.

Richard Harris is wasted and gives an altogether over the top performance as the inventor of the titular machine - a steam driven contraption for chopping down the trees of Siberia, which he nicknames the barber of Siberia. The would be clever part is that Tolstoy plays the barber of Seville in the officers school performance. Robert Hardy even crops up unexpectedly in one scene as an English language instructor.

The direction goes to lengths in certain scenes to come across as epic and is often beautifully photographed and set up - to the point where it can feel TOO staged - as in the scene on the platform where the cadets looking for their colleague search for him in such a way as their search becomes a dance for the camera. However the overall effect is pleasing enough as long as you can swallow the stageiness, mixed as it is with some truly un-stage-like milieus of Moscow and Siberia.

The dual language here works well. This does not feel like some euro film with too many cooks spoiling the broth - it is clearly a filmmakers vision (Nikita Mikhalkov), where English speaking actors speak English speaking roles and Russian actors the Russian roles, successfully giving the movie crossover appeal from the normal arthouse crowd. In particular, it is a pleasure to see a movie showing this part of history showing the Russians of the time who supported the Tsar as patriots, and the officer cadre as being a chivalrous life.

In summary I would have to say this IS a beautiful movie, worth watching - Julia Ormond is terrific, the music score is suitably melancholic, the scenery fantastic, and the story interesting - if a tad futile come the end. Worth the journey, if not the destination!

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