It’d be easy to dismiss this movie as the Russian “Dunkirk”, but for a film industry from which we seldom see big blockbuster entertainment of this kind on a global basis, it’s well worth checking out.
It’s 1941 and the city of Leningrad is under brutal attack by Nazi forces. Nastya (Maria Melnikova) is a young Leningrad girl in love with soldier Kostya (Andrey Mironov-Udalov), when he’s called up to duty by the local commanding officer, who also happens to be his father. Just like the British and French did in World War II’s other desperate mass evacuation as told by Chris Nolan, the armed forces are piling civilians and soldiers alike on ships moored on the shores of Lake Lagoda, marshalling old fishing vessels and barges to spirit them away in the night to safety.
They’re hardly up to the task, but Nastya, along with hundreds of other people and their belongings, are loaded into the holds belowdecks on the dilapidated barge 752 against the advice of the captain.
Among them are a gaggle of boarding school girls, a concert pianist and his beloved grand piano and a scary NKVD agent who previously led the investigation into Nastya’s intellectual class father, skulking around the ship intimidating anyone he can find, especially Kostya when it turns out his father has unethically diverted him to safety rather than send him to join the battle on the far shore.
It’s a battle Nastya’s father himself is press ganged into, clearing the opposite side of the lake a day’s trip away where the German army is dug in tight and ready to slaughter anyone who puts to shore.
Like “Titanic”, there are a few romantic and thriller subplots going on between the characters in the drama, but everything else about the siege of Leningrad (modern day St Petersburg), the escape and the fate of Barge 752 is historical fact.
Crucially, the production has had enough money to spend on big effects and VFX sequences of the barge being tossed in stormy seas and close quarters battle scenes, and there’s just enough emotional depth for you to invest in what’s happening to everybody and carry you through the story.
A bit like Roar Uthaug’s “The Wave”, it’s got quite a Hollywood aesthetic and you can see the influence of swashbuckling blockbusters from ages past, but in an age where we’re clamouring for diversity in storytelling from other parts of the world and other peoples, it’s a welcome tale you don’t know if you grew up in the West.