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Filipp Iankovskii, The Counselor of State [Statskii sovetnik] (2005)

reviewed by Josephine Woll©2005


The year is 1891. A train thunders through a winter night, heading east from Moscow. On board, the former commander of special police forces and newly-appointed Siberian governor Khrapov sips tea. While in Moscow, responsibility for Khrapov’s safety devolved on Erast Petrovich Fandorin, Counselor of State, specialist in Japanese martial arts, and investigator supreme. So when a man who fits the description of Fandorin identifies himself to Khrapov’s bodyguards, they admit him to Khrapov’s compartment. Within minutes the new arrival shoves a knife into Khrapov’s chest and escapes via a window, leaving behind only the mysterious initials “BG” inscribed on the weapon.

         

Of course the killer is not Fandorin, the redoubtable hero of Boris Akunin’s exceptionally successful books (and two prior film adaptations). The real Fandorin spends the remaining two hours of Counselor of State penetrating the terrorist organization (Boevaia gruppa―the “BG” inscribed on the knife) responsible for Khrapov’s murder. More importantly, he figures out which of the few highly-placed personages who knew of his assignment is playing a double-game and pulling the strings of terrorists and government officials alike.

         

Filipp Iankovskii, a young actor with only one prior film under his directorial belt (In Motion [V dvizhenii]), was chosen by Nikita Mikhalkov, Counselor of State’s godfather, to make this star-studded version of Akunin’s novel. After opening in April 2005 to great expectations, the film garnered a fair bit of critical praise and a substantial number of viewers, in part because of terrorism’s contemporary resonance, in larger part because of the slick, professional production and famous cast. From the point of view of casting, Counselor of State is a who’s who of Russian cinema. Virtually all the actors are well-known to audiences, and have known each other or worked together before. Indeed, in one interview Iankovskii suggests that each cast member is a former schoolmate, a former playmate, a former teacher, or his wife. Oleg Men shikov plays Fandorin, Mikhalkov his colleague cum antagonist, Prince Pozharskii; Konstantin Khabenskii gives an excellent performance as the terrorist leader Grin. Vladimir Mashkov, Oleg Tabakov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Maria Mironova―almost equally familiar names―take on secondary roles.

Counselor of State is a curiously apolitical thriller, despite its time and place. The terrorists operate in a decontextualized environment, with little explanation for their activities beyond government brutality, incessant court and civil service intrigues, and a rather stupid imperial family. Instead, the film relies on characters, most of whom protest their devotion to Russia and their desire to protect her real interests. But the central dynamic―the duel between Pozharskii and Fandorin―falters repeatedly. In a sense Mikhalkov and Men'shikov replay their rivalry in Burnt by the Sun (dir. Nikita Mikhalkov, 1994), minus the love interest. Prince Pozharskii lacks Comrade Kotov’s naiveté, but Mikhalkov builds Pozharskii’s personality much the way he built Kotov’s: the same slyness, the same theatricality, even―at a critical moment―the same kind of dance Kotov did to outshine Men'shikov’s Mitia in Burnt by the Sun. Meanwhile Men'shikov made the unfortunate decision to (under)play Fandorin as a virtually immobile contrast to Mikhalkov’s near-perpetual jiggling and gesturing. His features rarely express any emotion. He conveys frustration by stuttering or by striding down streets or corridors; he suggests contemplation by turning slowly on a stool or dealing out cards while looking blankly into space. Men'shikov has turned in some outstanding performances over the years, but his Fandorin is not one of them.

In lieu of personal dynamics we are left with Vladimir Aronin’s production, irreproachably convincing late 19th century Moscow (albeit filmed in Tver, where there are fewer antennas and billboards) and Petersburg, and some beautiful interiors, including grand halls inside the Kremlin. The locations and winter atmospherics work pretty well in The State Counsellor, and Iankovskii choreographs several good chase scenes, so that although the camerawork too often shoots characters face-front and center-screen, the film develops an accelerating rhythm that kept this viewer, at least, engaged, if hardly on the edge of her seat.

Josephine Woll, Howard University


Counselor of State, Russia, 2005
Color, 125 minutes
Director: Filipp Iankovskii
Screenplay: Boris Akunin
Cinematography: Vladislav Opel'iants
Music: Enri Lolashvili
Sound: Konstantin Zarin
Set Design: Vladimir Aronin
Cast: Nikita Mikhalkov, Oleg Men'shikov, Konstantin Khabenskii, Vladimir Mashkov, Oleg Tabakov, Fedor Bondarchuk, Maria Mironova, Oksana Fandera 
Producer: Leonid Vereshchagin
Production: Studio TriTe, with the participation of Channel One and the Federal Agency for Culture and Filmmaking of the Russian Federation 


Filipp Iankovskii, The Counselor of State [Statskii sovetnik] (2005)

reviewed by Josephine Woll©2005

09/10/05