Film Review: Moscow Never Sleeps

The city and cinematography are the stars in this tense yet affectionate ode to an imperfect Metropolis.
Specialty Releases

Like haunted portraits on a wall, Vladimir Putin and his government cronies loom heavily, both figuratively and literally, over the heads of several harried Muscovites in writer-director Johnny O’Reilly’s ambivalent love letter to Russia’s most populated city. Though never seen in the flesh, the phantom powers-that-be pull the zoning and permit strings that threaten to derail the latest massive real estate project of brash developer Anton (Alexey Serebryakov). They, whoever “they” are, might just as easily orchestrate a hostile takeover of the project, unless Anton plays along with their demands. As a defiant Anton is told, “Orders come down from above… You don’t like it, go live in London.”

Responsive only to favors, bribes, coercion or total subjugation, this system they control has worked mostly to Anton’s benefit up till now. They provided a plum gig for his singer girlfriend, Katya (Eugenia Brik), to perform in front of a TV audience on one of the main stages of the annual Moscow City Day celebration. And his connections helped provide a life that allows him to support Katya, and his estranged wife and son, in luxury. Now that he finds himself at odds with the officials he’s fruitfully exploited, will he stand up for his principles, whatever those are?

Such moral quandaries drive O’Reilly’s uneven though intriguing drama as it threads through the interconnected lives of Anton and Katya, along with her ex, Ilya (Oleg Dolin), son of famous TV and film comedian Valeriy (Yuriy Stoyanov), whose sudden hospitalization rallies both his wife, Natasha (Elena Safonova), and his mistress, Marina (Elena Babenko), to his side. The narrative—which also follows a band of thieves who kidnap Valeriy when he escapes from the hospital, and an unhappily blended family having a less than joyful holiday—constantly circles back to the question of which principles are worth standing up for, in a society that’s permeated by the air of corruption.

Setting a crime, alcohol and violence-stoked examination of Moscow’s moral character entirely during the 24 hours of City Day, a holiday celebrating civic history and pride, isn’t a bad joke, but it isn’t subtle either. And so it goes with the characterizations, and several of the performances. Nearly everyone here seems to be enacting a type—although a few in the cast pull it off expertly. Stoyanov, as the kidnapped TV star, makes a darkly humorous foil for his bumbling captors, while credibly relaying the gravity of a fairly outlandish hostage situation. And his endearing performance almost sells the simplistic notion that Valeriy is just so lovable that neither his wife nor his mistress, nor his son, could ever be too hurt by his infidelity.

Carrying an equal amount of screen time, Serebryakov, star of the Oscar-nominated 2014 drama Leviathan, spits fire and ice as fierce businessman Anton, the role among a dozen here that is written and played with incisive moral complexity. That’s more than can be said of Brik and Dolin’s Katya and Ilya, who are a photogenic pair, but boring. The peeling wallpaper of the working-class apartment shared by that imploding blended family is more interesting. Certainly the story of the family’s warring stepsisters Lera and Kcenia, well-played by Anastasia Shalonko and Lubov Aksenova, yields a richer exploration of O’Reilly’s themes than the will-they-or-won’t-they of Katya and Ilya’s romance.

The movie’s true romance is with the architectural beauty of the title city, depicted on a gorgeously warm day in September. In that regard at least, the film plays against type, since Hollywood motion pictures tend to drop in to the Russian capital only for wintry, fur-capped spy vignettes. Employing striking sound design, and exceptionally handsome cinematography by Fedor Lyass, O’Reilly offers a stress-filled tribute to the city’s beautiful buildings, bustling streets and squares. Otherwise, there aren’t many surprises in his depiction of a Moscow where cronyism rules the day and every character is only a few moments or a few feet away from a slug of vodka. But this bittersweet portrait of the city’s moods and idiosyncrasies ultimately does back up its apparent mission statement: “Moscow’s a prison, but we love it.”

Click here for cast and crew information.