Issue 69 (2020)

Nikolai Khomeriki: The Ninth (Deviataia, 2019)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2020

deviatayaOlivia Reed, a British expert in the Occult, arrives in Saint Petersburg on a tour of public performances. At the same time a series of murders breaks out in the city, leaving behind a trail of mutilated victims, pentagrams carved into bodies, and other signs of black magic. Russian police detective Sergei Rostov (Evgenii Tsyganov) and his skilled assistant Fedor Ganin (Dmitrii Lysenkov) track the murders through the Dostoevskian slums to the iconic landmarks of the imperial capital. Despite their skepticism of the supernatural, they quickly tie the murders to the arrival of the conjurer Miss Reed, arresting and interrogating her at length. Ultimately convinced of her innocence, however, they utilize her gift of ‘vision’ to anticipate the next murder, of which she herself may be the target. After a series of twists and turns, the real murderer and motive are revealed in the film’s finale amidst a grandiose fireworks display on the Field of Mars.

deviatayaThe Ninth is director Nikolai Khomeriki’s eighth feature film and his latest large-budget blockbuster, following The Icebreaker (Ledokol, 2016) and Selfie (2017). In making The Ninth, Khomeriki teamed up with heavyweight producer Alexander Rodniansky and celebrated cinematographer Maksim Osadchii (Ninth Company, Stalingrad, Kokoko, The Duelist) in an attempt to further expand the boundaries of Russian genre cinema. Continuing in the vein of Russian film The Duelist (Duelant, dir. Aleksei Mizgirev, 2016), and borrowing elements from international hits such as Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) and The Peaky Blinders (2013-present), the film capitalizes on recent global trends of steampunk, historical fantasy, comic-book narration, and a renewed interest in the detective genre. Characteristically for Khomeriki’s recent work, The Ninth is a visually striking, sleekly produced film, delighting in its reproduction of 19th-century factory districts, clothing, and the iconic landmarks of Saint Petersburg. But despite its large budget and prominent cast and crew, The Ninth fails to cohere into a compelling film. It suffers foremost from a schematic and somewhat incoherent script, comprised of a series of formulaic plot devices, each undeveloped and poorly integrated into the larger whole.

deviatayaThe film opens with Olivia Reed (Daisy Head) and her husband James on an archaeological excavation in an unspecified Middle Eastern location, presumably Egypt or former Mesopotamia.  The couple enters a tomb to discover a book of Occult magic they have been seeking. James abruptly shoots their local guide in cold blood and attempts to sacrifice Olivia on an altar “in order to bring their daughter back from the dead.” Olivia wakes up from this two-minute dream flashback, now on tour in Saint Petersburg. This is the extent of the film’s exposition and character development, raising a series of questions that are never answered: Why the Occult? Which of its varied traditions are they practicing? Who are James and Olivia? How did their daughter die? As the Russian investigator Rostov tries to protect Olivia from the murderer, a perfunctory romance develops between them. A series of red herrings, such as the character of Golitsyn, account for the requisite plot twists but feel artificial and fail to build suspense. These and other plot devices are thinly developed, devoid of realistic detail, or proper psychological motivation. Ultimately, The Ninth views like a film trying on a series of commercial formulas, unsure of what it wants to be about. Or perhaps a film written and produced by committee—it had an astounding eleven scriptwriters—driven by focus groups rather than artistic vision. The end result is, as one Russian critic put it, “a limp detective story” that leaves viewers missing the early, independent films upon which Khomeriki built his career, such as Tale about Darkness (Skazka pro temnotu, 2009) and Heart’s Boomerang (Serdtse-bumerang, 2011) (Gorelikov 2019). Fittingly, The Ninth was released and quickly forgotten, earning back less than one-third of its $6.5 million budget at the box office, and receiving a lukewarm rating of 5.8 on

deviatayaNevertheless, it should be said that The Ninth perhaps reflects some positive trends in the broader context of Russian blockbuster cinema, a sphere often scorned in the recent decade by critics and viewers. Alongside other well-known Russian blockbusters of the past few years, such as Stalingrad (dir. Bondarchuk, 2013), Viking (dir. Kravchuk, 2016) or Attraction (Pritiazhenie, dir. Bondarchuk, 2017), The Ninth is an entirely watchable film—technically competent, visually pleasing, and free of heavy-handed, patriotic ideology. Moreover, while its overwrought experiment with genre does not entirely work, some of its aesthetic choices are refreshingly creative and experimental, such as the often amusing, spontaneous narrator Ganin and the comic-book animations between scenes. The film’s haunting, beautiful visual landscape reminds us what a rich chronotope mystical 19th-century Saint Petersburg is—as the writers Nikolai Gogol, Fedor Dostoevsky, Andrei Bely and others have demonstrated—to which contemporary Russian cinema has yet to do justice.

Justin Wilmes
East Carolina University

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Works Cited

Gorelikov, Andrei. 2019. “Okkul'tnaia Revoliutsia: ‘Deviataia’—vialyi detektiv v turesticheskom Peterburge XIX veka.” Iskusstvo Kino (8 November).

The Ninth, Russia, 2019
Color, 99 minutes
Director: Nikolai Khomeriki
Scriptwriters: Marina and Sergei Dyachenko, Sergei Bodrov, Marina Denisevich, Aleksei Karaulov, Mikhail Kupisk, Oleg Mastich, Aleksandr Rodionov, Sergei Snezhkin, Il’ia Tilkin, Nadezhda Vorob’eva, Kirill Zhurenkov
Cinematography: Maksim Osadchii
Editing: Peter Zelenov
Composer: Igor' Vdovin
Production Design: Sergei Ivanov, Tatiana Patrakhal’tseva
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Sergei Mel’kumov, Nataliia Gorina
Cast: Evgenii Tsyganov, Dmitrii Lysenkov, Daisy Head, Jonathan Salway, Iurii Kolokol’nikov, Evgenii Tkachuk
Release: 7 November 2019

Nikolai Khomeriki: The Ninth (Deviataia, 2019)

reviewed by Justin Wilmes © 2020

Updated: 2020