With Russia back in the news yet again, it’s interesting to note how comparatively few English language movies are set in the country.
Admittedly in TV there’s been an uptick lately, with two recent series on Catherine The Great in youth/middle age, the Andrew Davies version of War & Peace, McMafia and the multi award-winning Chernobyl.
But in terms of film, depictions of Russia are often confined to WWII, Cold War and other (surprise surprise) spy-related themes. Here are a few of the most memorable:
Enemy at the Gates (2001, Amazon Rental/Buy)
The movie is redeemed by some strong action sequences and the presence of the always reliable Ed Harris, who plays Law’s opposing number in the Wehrmacht.
The late Bob Hoskins pops up as Khrushchev, adding another to his list of historical portrayals, which included Churchill, J Edgar Hoover, Noriega, Mussolini, Pope John XIII and Stalin’s other henchman Beria.
Spinning Boris (2003, Amazon Rental/Buy)
Not a must-see, but the trio of Jeff Goldblum, Anthony LaPaglia and Liev Schreiber (as the consultants) all enter the spirit of the piece.
Archangel (2005, Amazon Rental/Buy)
Based on the Robert Harris novel, this BBC TV movie was filmed on location in Arkhangelsk, which is probably the most interesting aspect of this run-of-the-mill thriller.
Transsiberian (2008, Amazon Rental/Buy)
Ben Kingsley gets the chance to essay a Russian accent, which appears to be inspired in part by the character Boris Badenov from the US cartoon show The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky.
The Last Station (2009, Amazon Rental/Buy)
Followers and family squabble over the author’s financial and literary legacy as the Count flees the bickering only to die at Astapovo railway station.
Christopher Plummer excels as Tolstoy, as does Helen Mirren as his long-suffering wife.
The Way Back (2010, Amazon Prime)
A gruelling throwback to the likes of Papillon (1973), The Way Back was inspired by the true-life escape of a ragtag band political prisoners, thieves, undesirables, and POWs from a Siberian Gulag during WWII.
Ed Harris stars again, this time as an American engineer caught up in one of Stalin’s purges.
The cast also includes Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan, Gustaf Skarsgård and Mark Strong.
The Darkest Hour (2011, Amazon Prime)
By no means, a classic, but The Darkest Hour does at least compensate the viewer in having aliens who don’t conform to the usual stereotypes.
Anna Karenina (2012, Amazon Prime and Netflix)
Some criticised the picture what was felt to be an obsession with set and costume design, but to my mind, it’s a superior addition to the many versions of the novel. Aside from Knightley, the all-star cast numbers Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander.
A Good Day to Die Hard (2013, Amazon Rental/Buy)
The most recent and definitely the weakest of the Die Hard franchise, Willis decamps to Moscow (and later Chernobyl) in order to save his CIA officer son (Jai Courtney) from a trumped-up murder charge.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014, Amazon Rental/Buy)
Chris ‘Captain Kirk’ Pine stars as Ryan, with Keira Knightley (again) as his fiancée Cathy.
Passes the time, but, as the phrase goes, ‘nothing to see here’. Well nothing we haven’t seen before, anyway.
Child 44 (2015, Amazon Prime)
Child 44 is one of the prime examples of a movie blighted by a polyglot cast’s attempts at Russian accents, which proves more than a little distracting.
Mumbling star Tom Hardy isn’t the easiest actor to understand at the best of times, but with the addition of his leaden Slavic intonation subtitles are necessary.
The Death of Stalin (2017, Amazon Rental/Buy)
Also, there’s not enough of Stalin himself, who’s extremely well played by veteran stage actor Adrian McLoughlin, outshining the overheated antics of Jeffery Tambor, Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs.
If you really want to watch a great black comedy about Stalin, try to find a copy of Jack Gold’s Red Monarch (1983), where the great Colin Blakely stars as Stalin, with David Suchet as pervy henchman Beria and David Threfall as the dictator’s alcoholic son Vasily.