Director: Vincente Minnelli
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Gwen Stefani, Albert Finney, Denzel Washington, Jet Li, Michelle Pfeiffer, Bill Paxton, Nia Vardalos
THE PLOT: In early 20th-century Tsarist Russia, Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (Pattinson) attempts to reconcile his desire for agrarian reform with his love of song-and-dance routines, and his quest to win the heart of Anna (Stefani), the peasant girl he has lusted after ever since having her father hanged.
The musical has come somewhat back into fashion in recent years, with films like Chicago, Hairspray and Hellraiser vs Mame lighting up the box office. Given we have had musicals about Eva Peron, PT Barnum, and Dr Jekyll, a musical about nearly-known Russian PM Pyotr Stolypin was a no-brainer in more ways than one. And who better to mount a lavish historical musical epic than king of the musicals Vincente Minnelli? “Lots of people,” would be the answer from many, given Minnelli has been dead for some time. Yet, undeterred, the folks at 20th Century Fox used old notebooks, diaries, and sketches, to allow Minnelli to direct the film from beyond the grave. Given the difficulties inherent in constructing a movie without a director, issuing instructions to cast and crew from a series of sources that were in no way related to the movie being made, and which were mainly written 50 years ago by a man who never heard of the project, the result came up remarkably well, even if you can, for example, occasionally see that Robert Pattinson has been working in some scenes from notes intended for Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me In St Louis.
The film is in some ways a triumph of style over substance – we are given glimpses of the socio-political issues of pre-revolutionary Russia, without ever truly getting to grips with them. For example, on seventeen different occasions we are shown a slow-motion depiction of one of Stolypin’s political enemies being hanged, but each time, instead of exploring the deeper resonances of the violence inherent in the Tsarist system, we cut away to a picnic.
Narratively, though, the film cannot be faulted, as it follows the classic three-act structure: we see young Pyotr go through university and meet his wife Olga, and rise to the position of Prime Minister; before then meeting and falling for Anna (a surprisingly sensuous portrayal by pop star Stefani, who made the brave but ultimately triumphant decision to play the character as a triple amputee – all the more impressive given all of her limbs are clearly visible throughout). We then see him fight against the Tsarist bureaucracy, who wish to stymie his plans for reform and the development of a successful middle class, while simultaneously seducing Anna and plotting to kill Olga and his six children in a series of escalatingly comical vignettes. The final act is concerned with Stolypin’s attempt to forge a career as a graphic designer after losing his job, and his final zany flight from his assassins, which creates a spectacular, Busby Berkeley-style death scene, complete with singing blood.
At the core of the story is Pattinson’s dark, brooding performance as Stolypin. Pattinson, in a major shift away from his dark, brooding performances in the Twilight series, delivers his best dark, brooding performance yet, accurately conveying the inner turmoil of a man who dreams of a better future for his country, but is beset by self-doubt, political opposition, and a wife who won’t die. His sex scenes with Stefani are also tastefully yet pornographically done – you feel you are actually there in the room being splattered with tomato sauce. Pattinson’s deep, soulful eyes, combined with his compellingly tremulous singing voice and little acting flourishes, such as his dramatic removal of his false beard in moments of high emotion, or his habit of wandering offscreen in the middle of conversations, leaving his co-stars talking to nobody, make up for a mesmerising picture of a man in moral crisis.
Stefani’s performance, as noted earlier, is equally impressive, although in several of the musical numbers she struggles with high notes, and in some shots the welts on her back are visible from the beatings meted out by Fox executives whenever her voice failed necessitating retakes.
The rest of the cast is solid, if unspectacular. Nia Vardalos is reliable as ever as Olga, Stolypin’s harridan wife who claims to be acting her husband’s best interests, but is actually secretly selling homemade videos of him in the bath. The only quibble to be had with her performance is that she is Nia Vardalos, but to be fair she cannot help this.
Elsewhere, Albert Finney brings quiet dignity and an amusing pair of novelty spectacles to Tsar Nicholas II, while Denzel Washington is by turns crafty and epileptically violent as Lenin. Jet Li’s Rasputin steals several scenes, while Bill Paxton, as Stolypin’s best friend Arnie, shines both in the numerous picnic scenes, and in several charming quiet moments at the winter palace, where Arnie and Pyotr retreat to play chess, discuss existential matters, and kill strippers.
Michelle Pfeiffer, unfortunately, is a disappointment as Stolypin’s feisty schizophrenic Aunt Millie, reciting her lines as if reading them off a piece of cardboard, and making the crucial error of holding the cardboard in her hand as she reads them. It is also never explained why she is, in every scene, sitting on a penny farthing bicycle. In fact it is never explained why she is in every scene at all. She is a minor peripheral character, making her appearance in the background of sex scenes in rural barns, cabinet meetings with the Tsar, and on the deck of the battleship Potemkin during the uprising, all the while sitting silently on her bicycle, somewhat ludicrous.
However, as always, it is the songs that make or break a musical, and this film has a bunch of beauties. Pattinson’s big show-stopper, “Tsars In My Eyes”, will no doubt gain a lot of the plaudits, but Stefani’s belter “Stolypin Won’t You Stop Stolypin’ Me?” equals it for power and emotional heft. On the lighter side, Finney and Li’s jaunty polka number “Disputin’ With Rasputin” brings a smile to proceedings, while a brilliant cameo by Sting for the song “Quit Stalin!” will be talked about for many years. From “Necktie of Love” to “Bowled Over By A Bolshevik” to the touching torch song “My Agrarian Contrarian”, it’s an all-killer, no-filler line-up of toe-tapping thrills.
Minnelli can be congratulated for an effective slice of pure entertainment, which makes up in energy what it lacks in historical authenticity or sets that don’t fall over. If one really wished to criticise Minnelli’s efforts, it would be to note that entire scenes within Stolypini are verbatim repeats of scenes from Father of the Bride and Brigadoon, and it must be admitted that all of the cast look uncomfortable when Stolypin and Tsar Nicholas face off over the question of peasants’ rights, and segue awkwardly into a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz routine from The Long, Long Trailer. Nevertheless, for a dead man, he did remarkably well, and it is doubtful that any living director would have brought quite so much chutzpah to the job.