The summer before the storm

A feelgood movie about something bad? Sheila Johnston on heroism, hubris and Chekovian tristesse in Stalinist Russia; BURNT BY THE SUN Nikita Mikhalkov (15)
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There are a lot of white suits in Burnt By the Sun. White lace and long-fringed shawls; braids woven prettily with white ribbons. The villain is a cad with a cable-knit cricket sweater and slicked-back hair. This is a handsome film about well-off people in an idyllic pastoral setting (although the print reviewed was in less than pristine condition). But it's much too boisterous and badly behaved to be a British period piece. It unfolds during a single long summer's day - but this is one of those Northern summers, familiar also from Bergman's films, which carry, even at their peak, a hint of melancholy: an awareness that the harsh Northern winter is not far away. The year is 1936, in Russia on the eve of a political freeze: Stalin's notorious show trials.

As often with this director, Nikita Mikhalkov, the story cranks up slowly. There's a short, enigmatic prologue in which a saturnine youngish man plays Russian roulette in his dark Moscow apartment. Then, a sudden leap to the countryside, ablaze with ripe wheat, where we meet a whole new set of characters: a huge, baggy family of grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, cousins, aunts and assorted hangers-on. It's difficult to place everyone exactly in the scheme of things but somehow it doesn't matter. Mikhalkov doesn't waste time introducing them, but he lingers a while in their presence: the film's detailed, laid-back pacing dwells on odd, inconsequential moments merely, it seems, for the pleasure of spending a little longer in these people's company.

They're a rum but likeable lot: a louche, boozy uncle who wears a hairnet and rides his bike in to breakfast; a buxom, hypochondriac maid; a highly strung spinster; an old codger who spends all days reading the newspapers; and two or three garrulous old ladies. If the adjective "Chekhovian" springs unbidden to mind, it's in part because the film deliberately solicits the comparison (one uncle is compared to a character in The Cherry Orchard), in part because some of the performances are very broad: almost, but not quite, bad with an outsized exuberance that you feel would be more at home under a proscenium arch. And in large part it's because of a vague but prevailing tristesse: "the aroma, the taste of life has vanished," sighs one old party. Nostalgia - misplaced, purblind nostalgia - is Mikhalkov's theme.

The hub of the household is Sergei Kotov (played by the director), a retired Red Army hero. This fellow, too, is slightly larger than life - with his luxuriant red-gold moustache and avuncular but commanding manner, he's a benign blond version of Uncle Joe. In middle-age, he has contracted a May-September marriage and is sprawling in happiness with his young wife, Marusia, and small daughter.

When a ridiculous old man barges into the dacha, creating havoc, we wonder whether the film really needs yet another comical eccentric. But then he whips off his false beard and stands revealed as the man in the opening scene. It's Dmitrii: an old family friend returned after years abroad. And, it emerges, an agent for Stalin's secret police, with the mission to cart off the Red Army hero in a black limousine. But, because he's a tortured soul (and also, paradoxically, a bit of a joker), he first idles away the summer's day with the family, worming his way back into their affections.

Burnt By the Sun sounds like a conventional melodrama with a political spin: a sinister goon, a great man betrayed, yet another modern Russian film droning on about the evils of Stalinism. But there's much more to Mikhalkov's hand than that. He holds his two antagonists, the big, blond, blustering Sergei and the small, dark, cunning Dmitrii, cleverly in balance. In an early scene, tanks roll up in the wheat fields to destroy the harvest (also unexplained; one presumes it's part of Stalin's campaign forcibly to collectivise the land). Summoned to help, Sergei pulls rank ("Do you know who I am?") on the young army officer. It's a grand gesture, but also an arrogant one, fuelled by hubris as much as heroism; he revels in his own celebrity and the way the soldiers worship him. It marks him as a maverick, a loose cannon even, ripe for "deletion".

Dmitrii, meanwhile, is no police meathead; he has his own complicated history. He was once Marusia's childhood sweetheart until dispatched by Sergei on prolonged and urgent party business; it's left a little unclear exactly how high-minded were the other man's intentions. As they circle each other, locking horns anew for Marusia's affections, you feel sorry for him, cheated out of his lover by an older, more powerful rival. He's a seductive, charming creature, besides, with a capacious bag of tricks - he sings, he plays, he tap-dances, tells stories: he bewitches Nadia, Sergei's little girl, but displays himself altogether ready to hurt her (if Sergei fails to confess, Dmitrii tells him, he will soon be reminded that he has a family).

Nadia is played by Mikhalkov's own daughter (he decided to act in the movie, his first role for some years, purely to help her performance) and Mikhalkov-the-director is clearly as besotted with her as Mikhalkov- playing-Sergei in the story. It's not altogether beneficial for his film: the moppet gives a sweet, unforced performance and has a winning smile, but we see an awful lot of it; a little less, one feels, and Burnt By the Sun might have dipped beneath the magic two-hour marker.

And it's a corny old device, this child's-eye-view of historical atrocities (how many films about the French Occupation have had a leading character the height of a jackboot?); inappropriate, too, in a film that's above all about ignorance, not innocence. Not everyone has the political naivety of a six-year-old; the real problem, Mikhalkov suggests, is that all the adults in this world are almost culpably oblivious to what's happening around them. It's typical of this genial director that he slips his point home with a dash of droll humour - "You're like Switzerland!" says one of the women to a particularly slothful character, "well-fed and apathetic" - in this generous, high-spirited film. Almost a feelgood movie about something very bad.

n Opens tomorrow at the Curzon Mayfair, London W1 (0171-369 1721)