The Good: Not a bad idea . . .
The Bad: Poor acting, BBC production values, Lack of character, Dull
The Basics: In a disappointingly dull and erratically paced film with poor acting and cardboard characters, a historian is lured into proving Stalin had an heir to take over modern Russia.
As someone raised on PBS, I am used to watching BBC movies and there's a certain production quality one expects from the BBC in its dramas. Recently, I watched Painted Lady (reviewed here!) and while I was disappointed by it, it had a number of the conceits I would expect from a BBC drama. So, for example, orchestra music swells conspicuously during action scenes to choreograph the emotions of the viewer, there are long patches of dialogue with no music and scenes of violence are always frenetic. These conceits are part of the plague that is Archangel. Archangel might well be an archetypal BBC drama, but where most are smart and engaging, this is just boring.
British Professor Fluke Kelso is an expert in Joseph Stalin, Soviet dictator, who carries around the pained notion that Stalin was never brought to justice. While lecturing in Russia, Kelso is approached by an old former soldier, who claims he was with Stalin the night Stalin died. He is soon killed and Kelso hooks up with his daughter, Zinaida to find out what he died for. It first appears that he was in possession of Stalin's diary, but it turns out to be something else which puts the lives of Kelso, Zinaida and a newspaper reporter in serious jeopardy from elements of Russia's past and present (and presumably future).
Archangel is basically an action-adventure mystery that postulates that Stalin had descendants waiting to claim his mantle and lead Russia into a new bright future on his legacy. Kelso and Zinaida adequately express the sense of horror one would expect from such a movement based on Stalin's record of genocide and his lack of accountability for the same.
The thing is, Archangel is just dull. I like political thrillers and I have patience for all sorts of movies that take time to develop, like Smilla's Sense of Snow (reviewed here!), but Archangel just bored me. The BBC sense of pacing was off on this venture with long, slow bits that dragged accompanied by fast-moving character running away from everyone and everything. There was little balance. Less than stylistic, this just seemed sloppy.
Moreover, as a plot function, the movie builds, builds, builds and then pretty abruptly ends. Given all of the moralizing and emphasis on the importance of consequences in Archangel, it would have been nice to see the movie deal with some actual consequences, which it avoids.
Part of the problem with this movie is clearly in the characters. None of them are interesting or intriguing and watching them piece together historical mysteries is done in a way that does not make any of them seem interesting or engaging. Instead, the viewer sits and waits for the characters to become distinct in any way shape or form. They do not, though.
So, for example, protagonist Kelso is supposed to be an intellectual who is the only expert who can piece together the clues to basically open the door for a new Stalin to walk through. Kelso never presents himself with enough credibility for scientific reasoning or innate intelligence to make the viewer believe that he could care enough to fight this fight and/or actually succeed in proving anything. I don't doubt that the character is the expert he claims on Stalin, but he doesn't seem to be more than that. He lacks any real personality outside his profession in this film.
Moreover, the complex plot is utterly absurd from a realist perspective. I don't mean the possibility of a new Stalin coming to power in Russia, that's perfectly realistic. But one of my good friends in college was a refugee from the former Soviet Union, a young woman whose family fled oppression there and who later made trips back after the fall of Communism and something she always said resonated with me. Russians, as a society, are used to a corrupt government, it simply did not surprise the people there when their government lied to them. So, while Kelso is played by elements who want to see a return to Stalinism in order to have a person's identity confirmed and verified, it's completely unnecessary.
In short, pretty much anyone could go to Russia, declare themself a descendant of Stalin and they would have an instant credibility with a large segment of the population who would simply follow because the lie serves their own desires. Authentication is necessary for the international response, but for people used to being lied to, the old adage about creating big lies seems to hold.
Kelso is played by Daniel Craig, the latest James Bond and I only hope he did better in that role (Ironically, there is an actor in Archangel who looks shockingly like a young Sean Connery!). Craig is bland, affectless and not only unflappable, but uninteresting as Kelso. He plods through the movie adding nothing distinctive to the role and his acting drags the character and plot down.
He is not alone, though. None of the acting pops as even remotely interesting.
On DVD, Archangel is utterly ruined by the preview, so if you watch the preview on the disc, you'll have seen the entire movie (literally, some of the last shots of the movie are in the trailer). Then again, if I could get the last two hours back by simply watching the preview, maybe I should have . . .
For other films set in Russia, check out my reviews of:
For other film reviews, check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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