Ripped straight from the pages of his own 2007 novel, director Marc Dugain has created an ambitious, slow burning and incredibly uncomfortable portrait of life under state control in Joseph Stalin’s Russia.
Anna (Marina Hands) and her physicist husband, Vassilli (Edouard Baer) are trying desperately to conceive. However, whilst home life may be filled with the constant throws of marital passion, most of Anna’s time is consumed by her contrastingly distressing role within the local hospital. During a time when Jewish doctors were being forcibly expelled and seemingly innocent people disappearing without a word, tensions are at an all time high. With the accompanying paranoia leading to a less than happy work environment, Anna’s life couldn’t be any more fraught with fear and danger.
Anna’s beautiful appearance and popularity with the local patients (due to the rumoured healing aura which radiates from her hands) has made her the chosen target of this unrelenting mist of hatred which now consumes the infirmary’s corridors. One day, to her terror, two officers dressed in dark overcoats come looking for her at the surgery and insist she accompanies them.
However, the car transporting Anna drives past the renowned Moscow interrogation centre and she soon finds herself in a dimly lit, ominously empty waiting room inside the Kremlin. After hours of patiently waiting, it becomes apparent she is here to see Stalin. The renowned dictator offers her a position she neither wants nor can refuse. It’s an incredibly secretive position which involves working closely with the fascist Soviet oppressor and, much to her dismay, means having to reject her old life – including the husband she loves dearly – in a vain attempt to save not just him but her whole family from certain death…
This intoxicating chamber piece manages to create an atmosphere of fear and impending misery through dialogue and framing alone, in what is truly an accomplished piece of drama with strong overtones of historical importance neatly presented on a bed of highly original fiction.
By creating a fictitious world for his events to unfold, director and writer Marc Dugain has managed to avoid the usual constraints which normally surround historical epics, leaving him with free reign to present his story without having to succumb to the rigorous facts and recorded truths of the history books. An unyieldingly strict approach can often hinder the enjoyment for those viewers unwilling to accept such a strong factual focus in lieu of any added erroneousness strands otherwise injected to titillate whilst driving the narrative forward. Anyone with even the remotest knowledge of Russian history is aware of the monstrous events which Stalin implemented, so having such a well established villain as the central antagonist means the script can forgo the usual time consuming and arduous task of back-story building, an element of storytelling which can often be detrimental to the overall enjoyment of a film. Instead our focus is strongly set on Anna, allowing us plenty of insight into this deeply tormented woman’s life, which only enhances the extent of her emotionally exhausting journey.
Tremendously shot through a plethora of drained lifeless colours, and against a backdrop of shadows, the film’s cinematography perfectly reflects the atmosphere during this desolate time of oppression and anxiety. The sympathetic use of framing perfectly captures the mood which encases the film’s two central characters, allowing the actors to fully explore their roles and thus creating a set of enormously accomplished performances which ultimately carry the film.
Marina Hands is utterly mesmerising. Without having to say a word, she manages to convey a wide range of emotions through subtle use of body language alone. Her expressive face could convey even the darkest of burdens with relative ease and is relied upon numerous times throughout this slow but thoughtful film. However, it’s Andre Dussolier in the role of the repugnant dictator who steals the show with his colossal on screen presence. Seeming like the devil in a trench coat, Dussolier radiates a sinister demeanour that sends an instant chill through your bones the moment he appears. The few attempts at humour injected into this fierce leader’s lines come across with an uncomfortable tone that’ll you’ll find yourself laughing at, not through genuine amusement but an uncomfortable mix of fear and duty. Such a role could easily have fallen into pantomime villainy, yet instead manages to convey the human side behind the truly malevolent actions of one of the 20th century’s most predominant figures.
However, a gripping script and strong performances cannot carry a film alone. And whilst moments like Dussolier reading direct Stalin quotes, such as “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic,” is undoubtedly powerful stuff, An Ordinary Execution does suffer from some weak direction. It’s clear that Dugain’s strength lies in his wonderful ability to write genuinely immersive dialogue, but the film itself has seemingly been created using very formulaic and workmen like techniques, with none of the flare shown in the script being translated visually. As flaws go, it’s hardly the most damning of criticisms; however, it does prevent the film from transcending the genre of period drama into something more necessary, ultimately leaving it in the no man’s land between high concept television and engrossing cinema.
For the two central performances alone, An Ordinary Execution should be classed as a must watch, with both leads pulling off incredibly moving and intense portrayals that cry out for greater recognition. Unfortunately, as a complete film, An Ordinary Execution fails to make the most of it impressive acting talent and immaculately crafted script, which sadly feels like a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise enthralling exploration into this dark period of history.