On the surface, “Elena” is a tense Russian family drama about a second marriage made difficult by differences in income and by the children of the first marriages.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev made 2003’s “The Return” and 2007’s “The Banishment”. Both are absorbing and enigmatic films, leaving the viewer puzzling over the big themes that appear to be hidden in small family tales.
“Elena” wears its class divisions and big analogies in style – but it’s tough to watch and almost too subtle, at times.
The name “Elena” means “bright one”, “shining light” or “torch”. Given the depths of despair and desperation that actress Nadezhda Markina shows in the title role, there is classic Zvyagintsev irony here.
Andrey Smirnov plays husband Vladimir, with arrogance and entitlement. His luxurious lifestyle is in sharp contrast to the poverty of Elena’s son’s Sergei (Aleksey Rozin as a magnificent boor).
Katya, Vladimir’s daughter (a super and sulky Elena Lyadova) shares one thing with Sergei. They are both living off their respective parents.
Then, Vladimir has a heart attack and there are a couple of plot twists. One is preposterous. Elena is meant to have been a nurse and yet this key point suggests she might not understand the contraindications of certain drugs. It’s lazy writing and Zvyaginstev could have got to the point in many more plausible ways.
Just 10 minutes before the end of the 109 minutes, I realised that I was watching an extended metaphor for the plight of modern Russia. Mother and father, angry children, painful sections of vapid reality TV shows playing in the background, luxury and poverty side by side – it’s all there.
I should have got the point when people woke up in the morning and – unlike the rest of the world – stared into mirrors for ages. The big message here is that Russia may not have changed to a more positive state. Progress may make things worse.
The Philip Glass score is suitably sombre and atmospheric and it all looks rather beautiful. The central apartment and the gym, hospital and outside scenes are all in sleek contrast to the grubby block where Sergei’s family lives and the hooligans are always just outside the gate, with nothing to lose.
It’s an engrossing and exceptionally intelligent film. The very full Stratford Picturehouse watching this Discover Tuesday screening were all attentive and the mobile phones didn’t come out, even during the exceptionally slow bits. The subtitles are terrific.
But it’s a bit depressing if you want to see evidence of hope, growth and improvement, in people and in Russia.