Review by Jonathan Hickman
Writer/director Kantemir Balagov must be a solemn young man. His “Beanpole” took home two awards at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, including for best director. When other twenty-somethings are focused on generating social media attention with an “edgy” tweet about their wardrobe, this young talent turned his attention to 1945 Leningrad. In his film, he explores the struggles of two women who attempt to restart their lives after the horrors of serving in World War II.
A disclaimer: “Beanpole” is not a film for everyone.
Aside from overcoming the “one-inch barrier” (referring to subtitles), this is a very Russian film. It’s slow, impeccably shot, and filled with an excruciating dose of angst that no amount of vodka can overcome. But the reward is in being exposed to its unique perspective. “Beanpole” is an education.
The story concerns two soldiers named Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who return from the battlefield to work in a hospital. Iya is a tall, model-like girl with a fair complexion and almost translucent hair. Her lanky figure has resulted in the nickname Beanpole. Iya’s good friend is Masha, a precocious and attractive woman, whose chief interest seems to be finding a husband (security) that can help her move on. Masha considers love a secondary concern.
The two women work in a hospital, and their patients are fellow injured soldiers. As the men in their care fight to recover, some do not want to go on. Iya is very affected by the pain and suffering around her, while Masha masks her feelings with sarcasm. But the bond the women formed in battle keeps them together, even when tragedy threatens at every turn.
“Beanpole” is a remarkable film. The resources required to recreate 1945 Leningrad had to be significant. For example, the streetcars in the movie are authentic, having been loaned to the production by the Museum of Electrical Transport in St. Petersburg. Everything is reproduced in exacting detail. In one scene, a devastating injection is given, and it looks so real that one would think the actor agreed to be injected. Little facets set the time and place perfectly.
But think of the risk the producers took by placing their faith and money in a twenty-something director, who decided to make a film about two women in Leningrad in 1945? This movie is on the other end of the war spectrum from something like the exciting, some call it a gimmick/video game, “1917.” While I liked that exciting war film, the producers of “Beanpole” recognized the importance of telling the story of women who served in WWII.
For his screenplay, Balagov was inspired by the book “The Unwomanly Face of War,” by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. That book was an oral history of women in World War II. The subject matter reminded me of Shirley Lauro’s Vietnam set play “A Piece of My Heart.” All too often, the contribution of women in war is largely ignored. “Beanpole” looks at the aftermath in a way I’ve not even considered.
Even more remarkable is that the two lead actresses make their screen debuts in “Beanpole.” Miroshnichenko, as Iya, is striking in this movie, not on for her gawky, but lovely physical presence, but there is an inner sadness that she embodies in an affecting way. Perelygina creates an entirely separate on-screen persona. Early on, her Masha is the comic foil of the two, but by the film’s third act, she has a scene that is crushing. Both actresses are critical to the sorrowful material connecting with the viewer.
“Beanpole” is a daunting Russian film of significant power and historical import. It’s not pleasant viewing, but it is necessary none-the-less. Only a committed team could complete such a movie, and only a sincere writer/director could tackle the heavy material. Balagov is a new auteur.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com