Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii star as Soviet Air Force soldiers grappling with sexual tension and professional pride in Peeter Rebane’s debut feature. But with its familiar structure and sanitized approach, Firebird is perhaps enthralling to a fault.
Based on a true story, Estonian director Peeter Rebane first discovered Sergey Fetiso when he read his book, The Story of Roman. Immediately absorbed by this tale of impossible homosexual love during the Cold War, he collaborated on the script with Firebird‘s lead actor, Tom Prior (The Theory of Everything). The result is a ludicrously watchable and deftly-told story of love and loss—albeit one that ultimately struggles to coalesce its political context or do anything new with its manner of storytelling.
At a Soviet Air Force base, Sergey (Tom Prior) is counting down the days until he can leave and pursue his dreams of being an actor in Moscow. Until then, he must endure abusive drills in his barracks—in scenes straight out of Full Metal Jacket —and muddy, depressing training sessions. That is until Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) arrives: a sensitive and impossibly good-looking lieutenant who shares his love for literature and theatre. The spark is immediate and their love affair begins quickly—but with obvious threats around every corner, their relationship can only last for so long before it inevitably implodes. Stuck in the middle is Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), an oblivious secretary with feelings for both men.
Spanning years and cities, Rebane keeps a tight focus on the woes of this troika. Perhaps simply taking a familiar love story and slotting it into an unfamiliar setting won’t be enough for some; at times, it feels like the film wastes an opportunity to tap into its context and be more cerebral about how a nation’s homophobia psychologically affects queer youth. Firebird ultimately eschew politics in favour of focusing on love, despite the fact that queer love—especially in 1970s Soviet Union—is in itself inherently political and arguably should be treated as such. Perhaps not every film needs to recreate the wheel, though, and it would be untruthful to say I wasn’t gripped and moved by what I watched.
Firebird follows a structure we know well: a meet-cute, a romance, an issue, a tragedy, a healing. Nonetheless, the film remains utterly watchable. There’s electric chemistry between Zagorodnii and Prior; stolen looks through dusky lashes contribute to a stirringly romantic atmosphere. With Zagarodnii’s Clark Kent-esque handsomeness, it’s simply impossible to not swoon along with Sergey as their relationship blooms into focus, like the photographs they develop together in darkened rooms. Every rippling muscle, hungry gaze and burning kiss is framed with beauty and urgency. Mait Maekivi’s cinematography daubs each frame with an artistic vibrancy: poppy fields, forests and buildings are almost Wes Anderson-esque in their symmetry. It’s a beautiful looking film: one that reflects the winsome simplicity of their initial relationship, but is perhaps at odds with the violence and homophobia of the KGB-controlled setting.
Rebane wanted the film “to be in English, in order to reach the widest audience globally”—and yet the Russki tropes of vodka, party pins and disgruntled apparatchiks feel cheap, like a Smiffy’s dress-up of the Soviet Union rather than an earnest attempt at the real thing. Prior seems to be so worried about mucking up his Russian accent that he doesn’t actually try to do one half the time. Accent and bad wig aside, Prior acts well, with his inner torment and sexual energy fighting against one another in dynamic, charged scenes. In the rather difficult-to-elevate role of Luisa, Pozharskaya manages to transcend the bit-part of the cuckolded wife to hold her own. Overall, though, it is Zagorodnii who emerges as the star—a man unable to live up to his lofty position in life and work, allowing cowardice and yearning to destroy him from the inside out.
Undeniably effective in drawing you into its story, it’s a shame that Firebird resorts to trite symbolism and unsubtle dialogue. A dip in the sea becomes a metaphor for struggling with one’s emotional turmoil—never seen that one before! There’s an over-reliance on a cello-heavy score that contributes to the sanitized sheen of an ITV Drama, not a queer love story. At one point Sergey is reading Shakespeare and actually, sincerely, says aloud: “to be or not to be, that is the question.” There’s even a “Rasputin” needle-drop which, sure, is camp, but feels a little too jarring to let slide. All things considered, you can’t help feel that there’s a wasted opportunity here. Even so, it is a quietly devastating and assured debut.
Words by Steph Green
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