Rupert Everett a Cossack? Nyet likely!

Gay British actor dismays Russians who have waited 15 years to see a masterpiece on screen
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The Independent Online

The première of a film based on one of Russia's most sacred works of literature, And Quiet Flows the Don, is proving fraught with difficulty because the leading man, Rupert Everett, is gay.

The English-language feature film has been dubbed into Russian, converted into a TV seriesand launched amid great fanfare. It was shot on the Russian steppe in 1991 by the Oscar-winning Soviet film-maker Sergei Bondarchuk, but languished in a bank vault for 15 years after the film's backers went bust and Bondarchuk died. A long campaign to secure the film's return to the Motherland, including personal lobbying from President Vladimir Putin, has finally brought the film to a Russian audience.

But critics have been as chilly as a Russian winter, describing it variously as a parody, an American comic-book, an insult, inaccurate, a failure, and a Mexican soap opera.

Part of the problem is the story's sanctity in the canon of Russian literature. And Quiet Flows the Don is an epic novel, comparable to Tolstoy's War and Peace, written by Mikhail Sholokhov between 1926 and 1940. It won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965. It tells the story of a Cossack fighter, Grigory Melekhov, and his tragic struggle for survival and love against the backdrop of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Russian civil war.

As well as Everett, who plays Melekhov, the castincludes F Murray Abraham, Ben Gazzara and Delphine Forest. But in a country where tolerance of homosexuality is in its infancy, the portrayal of the macho Melekhov by Everett touches a raw nerve.

Russian critics - and Cossacks - contend that Everett is unconvincing in the role. "It has no soul," says Vladimir Voronin, Deputy Ataman of the Don army. "How can Rupert Everett, who is gay, feature in a love story when he doesn't know what a woman is?"

Detractors also claim that Forest is far too frail for a Cossack woman and take issue with her romping half-naked with Everett. Cossack women of that period, they point out with touching faith in the historical accuracy of the movie industry, always wore nightdresses.

Sholokhov's daughter, Svetlana, said she couldn't bear to watch to the end lest the film "damage" her health. Everett has admitted that he was "a strange choice" to play Melekhov, but hailed the decision to show the film at all.