Film Review: The Duelist

Once upon a time in St. Petersburg...
Specialty Releases

Although the plot of The Duelist is original, Russian writer-director Alexey Mizgirev’s enjoyable period drama feels like an adaptation of some lost Russian epic novel of the 19th century by, say, a contemporary of Ivan Turgenev or Mikhail Lermontov. A sweeping pastiche of key tropes of the period, it offers a Romantic hero with a dark past, a manipulative, ruthless antagonist, an aristocratic beauty who defies convention, assorted shady foreigners, “noble savages,” and colorful minor characters with deformities. There are purloined identities, loyal servants, and even a shipwreck. The only thing missing is maybe a lost document bequeathing a fortune, and a reprobate who turns to God. Actually, that last one sort of happens as well.

Decidedly retro and spectacular to look at (even if the IMAX theatre at the Toronto Film Festival wasn’t always kind to the digital format it was shot on), this should play like gangbusters in its native land, especially with Russian superstars Pyotr Fyodorov and Vladimir Mashkov onboard. Offshore, it could attract interest among a more niche audience of Slavophiles and expats, especially in places like Berlin and New York City. Meanwhile, marketing in art houses could usefully exploit producer Alexander Rodnyansky’s connection to Oscar nominee Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2014 masterpiece, which Rodnyansky also produced.

Set in St Petersburg in 1860, the story revolves around retired officer Yakovlev (Fyodorov, best known for his collaborations with Fedor Bondarchuk, Stalingrad and Inhabited Island). A deadly shot, Yakovlev is effectively a kind of mercenary in that he’s available for hire through his associate Baron Staroe (Martin Wuttke, speaking German throughout) to stand in for others in formal duels. Much later in the film, flashbacks reveal that years ago an Aleut shaman predicted he would never die, and so far that seems about right, as Yakovlev wins duel after duel, wounding and more often killing noble opponents. Although duels of honor are technically illegal in Russia at the time, no one pays the law a blind bit of notice (some things never change in the Motherland). The code of practice isn’t written down anywhere, and yet everyone knows the rules and rituals, while many participants see it as an almost mystical rite. To take part in a duel is to accept that one’s fate is ultimately in the hands God, hence the practice of Russian roulette.

Eventually, it turns out that all of Yakovlev’s recent duels were secretly arranged by Count Beklemishev (Mashkov, from Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol). He is a shadowy puppet-master with a grudge and designs on Princess Martha Tuchkova (Yuliya Khlynina), whose brother Prince Tuchkov (Pavel Tabakov) Yakovlev is scheduled to duel with next. When attraction stirs between him and the pretty blonde princess, problems arise, especially since, as the flashbacks reveal, Yakovlev has an agenda of his own.

Although one wouldn’t go so far as to describe The Duelist as an all-out “Eastern” like 1970 Soviet White Sun of the Desert which unfolds in Russian Asia, parallels here with classic American westerns like Shane (1953) or High Noon (1952) are certainly resonant. At the very least, having the plot centering on problems of social mobility, honor and militarism show how universal those concerns were all over the world at the time.

However, Mizgirev and his collaborators’ handling of the material feels decidedly contemporary, especially Maksim Osadchiy’s cinematography, which favors low, cantered angles, overhead shots, and moody, ominous lighting that almost willfully throws some of the spectacular rooms used for the set-pieces into darkness. Production design by Andrey Ponkratov uses a combination of sets and carefully dressed locations to emphasize the splendor and intricacy of Tsarist-era interior decoration, which contrasts poignantly with the mud and filth outside these palaces, especially in a year when the Neva has flooded its banks. Altogether, it’s a very polished package, although the pace is somewhat sluggish in the middle act, making the film at times feel longer than it actually is. And the cameras used were presumably not quite high-definition enough, as on IMAX some darker shots look like they were shot on video.--The Hollywood Reporter

Click here for cast and crew information.