DIRECTOR: Peeter Rebane

CAST: Tom Prior, Oleg Zagorodnii, Diana Pozharskaya, Jake Thomas Henderson, Margus Prangel, Nicholas Woodeson, Ester Kuntu, Kaspar Velberg, Markus Luik, Nils Mattias Steinberg, Henessi Schmidt, Kaie Kõrb

RUNNING TIME: 107 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: In Soviet-occupied Estonia, a young solider (Prior) forms a forbidden affair with a fighter pilot (Zagorodnii)…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

While the world is busy wagging the finger at Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, it’s important to remember that there are several other reasons to not care all that much for the country, namely its harsh treatment and persecution of the LGBTQ+ community throughout history, a practice which is sadly still in effect today. The release of Firebird – an international co-production between the UK and Russia’s neighbouring Baltic state Estonia – does well to remind audiences of the fact, especially as it takes inspiration from a real-life figure whose story is sadly one of many that was unable to find its happy ending, thanks to the brutal interference of an oppressive regime during a tough era of modern history.

Director Peeter Rebane and lead actor Tom Prior are both credited as writers on the film, which is based loosely on the story of former Soviet soldier and actor Sergey Fetisov, who passed away in 2017. Their adaptation of Fetisov’s memoir A Tale About Roman changes a few details (for instance, Fetisov – played by Prior in the film – is given a new mouthful of a surname: Serebrennikov), but more or less gets the essence of the story down: set in Soviet-occupied Estonia during the late-70s, Prior’s Sergey is a young, but troubled, soldier engaged in national service at a local army reserve. He and his friends, secretary Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya) and bunkmate Volodja (Jake Thomas Henderson), are soon introduced to handsome new fighter pilot Roman Matvajev (played by Ukrainian actor Oleg Zagorodnii), whom Sergey is assigned to serve under. Naturally, the two men grow close after bonding over Tchaikovsky records and sneaking away to the theatre to catch a production of the Firebird ballet, sparking Sergey’s interest in the performing arts, and eventually the two are physically intimate with each other. Unfortunately, this being the Soviet Union, they must keep their love affair hidden from the KGB, which both Sergey and Roman struggle to do as their lives keep intertwining as the years go by.

You can tell that this was a passion project for both Rebane and Prior, because Firebird is written, directed and acted with a level of compassion and intrigue for its subject matter. Rebane’s direction is fair, allowing the tragic love story at its centre to play along at an acceptable pace (though it starts to wane nearer towards the end), and Prior provides a beating heart and soul to the story, as does his strong romantic chemistry with Oleg Zagorodnii. Their script, though, often opts for basic melodrama that feels oddly safe, especially given the kinds of topics that it’s tackling. Much of the dialogue is rather stiff, not allowing enough extra room to expand on certain character motivations or plot threads, which are instead presented at face value without a lot of depth to their introductions. One character, introduced early on as a potential major player but then only makes fleeting appearances afterwards, disappears completely after their big scene, and you have to wonder if there was more to this person that was left in the editing bay, because the way it’s presented here it’s as though large chunks of their story are just missing.

Honestly, there really isn’t that much else to say about Firebird. It’s neither great nor awful, and not even that disappointing, but it’s mostly just there to be a formidable, watchable drama that goes in one ear and out the other without any discomfort whatsoever. While it maybe could have done with less reliance on safe practises, particularly when discussing topics such as gay relationships in the Soviet Union, it handles things just fine, but in a way that you’ve certainly seen in a lot of other similarly-themed movies, which makes it all the more difficult for Firebird to fully spread its wings.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Firebird is a competently made, but not entirely memorable, historical romance that is certainly a passion project for director Peeter Rebane and co-writer/star Tom Prior, but while they do well in their respective roles, their script leans heavily into oddly safe melodrama that prevents its timely themes from being fully explored.

Firebird is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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