Post-war Leningrad comes to vivid life in Russian stunner Beanpole

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Starring Viktoria Mirishnichenko. In Russian, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      In the bleak Leningrad of late 1945, the war is well and truly over, and Stalin’s next round of purges are yet in the distance. But this quiet interregnum brings little peace to the people who live and work at a threadbare hospital complex stuffed with survivors, some of whose scars can’t be seen.

      In particular, Beanpole zeros in on Iya Sergueeva (newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse so nicknamed because, pale, blonde, and socially awkward, she towers above everyone else—an effect heightened by her tendency to suddenly freeze where she’s standing, emitting tiny hiccups as her lungs grasp for air. Later, we learn that she was “invalided out” from the front, due to concussion-related PTSD. 

      Despite her manifold shyness, Iya is a favourite among patients, especially when her little boy tags along to entertain them. (It’s one of the film’s most wounding ironies that the maimed soldiers are generally in a better mood than people we see on the autumnal streets.) The kid, in fact, is not hers, but that of Iya’s much shorter comrade Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who sent him to safety while she stayed on the front.

      When Masha finally arrives, in a heavily medaled uniform, her response to almost everything, including a tragedy that happens along the way, is a mocking smile and attempts to control everyone around her. She seems to like the sad-sack head doctor (Andrey Bykov), while he has one droopy eye on Iya, but everyone’s romantic needs are still secondary to survival—and, in this case, way more complicated, regarding sexuality and more.

      Some of these anecdotes were inspired by an oral history of women who survived the Leningrad siege, but sole writing credit goes to director Kantemir Balagov for this, his second feature. The filmmaker is only 28, and his grasp of the period’s nightmarish extremes is remarkable. The movie’s fluid camerawork, set detail, and deeply saturated greens and shocking reds help mitigate the gloom. And the acting is top-notch, especially considering that most of the players are non-professionals. 

      Balagov’s big sin, however, is letting scenes linger too long, adding up to a two-and-a-quarter-hour running time that could surely have been trimmed without losing any threads of the story. The director wants to trap you in that world, and does his job just a little too well.