Dir: Peeter Rebane
Every film whether, like this one, it is based on a true story or it is the most fantastical and surreal tale ever told, sets out to create a world that is, in itself, credible. In some ways, Firebird does this: the historical detail—sets, props, hairstyles, costumes—appears to be on point, but right from the start, something is off. The film is spoken almost entirely in English (background dialogue that doesn’t need to be subtitled is in Russian, as is signage and other incidental writing). The commercial imperatives of this choice are clear and easy to understand, but the fact remains that Firebird is telling a fundamentally Russian story. The story takes place entirely within the USSR, the characters are all Russian, and two of the three lead actors are Ukrainian. From the first moment they start talking to each other in accented English (often dubiously so in Tom Prior’s case), a vital part of the world-building is broken however good the rest of the film may be.
Unfortunately, even apart from this glaring issue, Firebird isn’t a particularly good film. The performances are a mixed bag; the actors are clearly capable, with the films quieter moments coming off well. The longing looks between Sergei and Roman, the silent build of chemistry, and Sergei’s terror, which he has to hide from the other soldiers when Roman’s plane gets into trouble, are all effective. The best moment in the film comes from Tom Prior. When Sergei hears that Roman is marrying Luisa we can see the deep, under the surface, hurt coming to the fore for just a moment. However, probably thanks to the language issue, dialogue is often stiff and stilted, never more so than in a dinner table scene between Roman and Luisa. This means the film always feels uneven. While it looks handsome enough and Rebane puts some of his influences on display (a beach scene late on has a definite air of Francois Ozon), the direction isn’t especially inspired and, on a couple of occasions, notably clunky. This is never more true than when we find out that Luisa is pregnant with Roman’s child, there is a hard cut to Sergei standing in the pouring rain—a cheap, corny, and cliche emotional shortcut.
Taken purely at an emotional level as a story of forbidden love, Firebird has its affecting moments. We do believe in the relationship at its heart, and it’s hard not to feel for the characters, especially knowing that the story is at least broadly true. On the other hand, every detail is clunky. The language issue means everything feels artificial and Peeter Rebane doesn’t find much visual inventiveness with which to tell his story. There’s the kernel of a great movie here, but it’s not the one that ended up on the screen.