Russian drama gets off to a shaky start

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The Independent Culture
Russia offers many things to the film- maker - low production costs, an exotic backdrop, a refreshment of genre pleasures - but it doesn't yet appear to offer them a Steadicam. Grushko, a new three- part series for BBC 1, opens by rising into the air above St Petersburg, catching the city at sunset - white Northern light shining on the Neva. I'm a knockover for helicopter shots at any time (the combination of omniscience and mystery they offer can be thrilling) but I could have done without the wobble here, which suggested that a hapless cameraman had been lashed to the landing struts. Later, too, in a scene in which a menacing black limousine cruised to a fatal appointment, you could see that the cameraman (tracking it from a car in front) was being given problems by St Petersburg's crumbling pavements. I hope the neck brace is off by now.

I mention these minor rough edges only because they raise the odd difficulty of making films which pretend to be foreign. What the film-makers clearly want here is Russianness through and through - otherwise they would have made Brian Cox a Scottish policeman sent on assignment to St Petersburg rather than what he is, an embattled Russian patriot confused at the pace of change. But a clash of cultures was not what they were after - they wanted to give a sense of immersion, of the nation as it is lived by the natives. That said, the last thing they wanted was for Grushko to look like a Russian television programme and, just occasionally, it did. Local colour has its expenses.

Language presents a particular problem. In Grushko the Russians all speak with their own accents (that is British regional accents) while the Chechen and Georgian gangsters say things like 'Yoe tell me, yoe're thee feelth.' For some reason (which may have to do with the acting of some bit-parts) this has you checking lip movements to see if scenes have been dubbed. Perhaps it's just the translation - I can buy the Russians as given to poetic gloom ('The truth is coarse in our mouths and ugly to hear,' says Grushko's boss at one point) but when the gangsters start using words like 'filth' and 'snout' things feel less comfortable - if you have to translate into the cliches of British villainy then what's the point of going all the way to St Petersburg? The central pretence of such films, in fact, is that no act of translation is taking place, that the barriers of language and culture have become invisible. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that they should stub their toes on them

so frequently.

But Grushko isn't a failure. Brian Cox's stolid melancholy is just right for the times - a policeman who sees greed and rapacity in Russia's new mood - and the script is alert to the peculiar generational tensions of the place. Grushko and his daughter share a contempt for what Russia has become but are entirely at odds over what has made it that way - he thinks it is the greed of the market-place, she thinks it is an inherited corruption and apathy. He still has to correct old habits of mind, talking about 'the Wes . . . the rest of the world'. She already dreams of leaving.

There are some nice scenes too which pick up on the speed of change. Grushko is forced to go on television against his will, to report on the investigation into the murder of a popular television personality. 'There's really nothing to worry about,' says his interviewer, 'I'm just going to ask you a few routine questions,' a reversal of roles which was one of the main themes of this first episode, which explored the vacuum of authority which allows the mafia to thrive. It's a brave or foolhardy scriptwriter who includes a line like 'I don't know what anyone believes in any more', but Cox almost got away with it, abetted by your knowledge that the cliche may have some force in St Petersburg today. The city itself is wonderful - that opening shot gives you a brisk tour of the sights but after that you're down alleyways and in courtyards - crumbling brickwork, peeling paint and botched repairs which make their point without the need for subtitles.