BASICALLY…: A young Ukrainian gymnast (Budiashkina) is forced to flee amidst revolutionary protests…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The ongoing war in Ukraine, as brutal and unjust as it is, has unexpectedly brought most of the world together, in ways not seen since the end of the Second World War. Countries around the world have rallied their support for Ukraine’s inspirational resistance against its oppressive and deadly Russian adversaries, to a point where victory for Putin has become all but impossible (and his eventual downfall, hopefully, to come soon after). Even the film industry is doing its bit, with cinemas in the UK programming special one-off charity previews for the upcoming Ukrainian sports drama Olga – an official release date over here has yet to be announced – with the proceeds going to the Disaster Emergency Committee that has been set up to aid Ukraine in its darkest hour.
Five or ten minutes into Olga, you can tell why it was selected to be previewed well in advance. Aside from being a very decent movie, it carries themes and contexts that are eerily resonant for this exact moment in history, as well as a sense of urgency which reminds viewers that what is happening right now is only the culmination of almost a decade of political and cultural oppression in the country.
Beginning in 2013, we are quickly introduced to our title character (played by Anastasiia Budiashkina), an ambitious young gymnast who is preparing to represent Ukraine at the forthcoming European Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Her mother Ilona (Tanya Mikhina) is a journalist who is working long hours to expose corruption within then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s government, which is putting both her and her daughter in danger. As a result, Olga is forced to leave the country for Switzerland, where she is able to travel due to her late father’s Swiss nationality, and resumes her gymnast training with a place on the local gymnasts’ team. However, as fierce public protest back in Ukraine quickly evolves into what has become known as the 2014 “Revolution of Dignity”, Olga finds herself powerless as her mother, close friends and thousands of civilians come under frequent attack, which only fuels her rage and determination to succeed.
Of course, it must be reiterated that Olga was made well before Russia decided to launch its current offensive against Ukraine, so any and all thematic and visual connections to what is happening in the country right now is purely coincidental. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any powerful imagery that does invoke strong parallels to the upsetting stuff that is dominating the news: scores of protestors occupying the streets and local landmarks, authorities in riot gear opening fire on peaceful civilians, and waves upon waves of war-like violence engulfing those fighting for a stronger democracy, are all among the scenes captured by amateur footage which director Elie Grappe frequently splices into his film. Even without the unavoidable current context, it is very chilling to watch chaos like this unfold through such a real and unfiltered lens, but Grappe doesn’t intend to exploit the carnage for cheap shocks, and instead uses it as an engaging backdrop for the main character’s emotional journey as she slowly unravels due to the unrest in her native country. You can feel her rage as former coaches switch their allegiances to Russian teams, as well as her frustration over having to remain in neutral Switzerland while friends and even her own mother have to endure the horrors back home, and lead actress Anastasiia Budiashkina – who has herself just fled Ukraine and found sanctuary in Poland – embodies the growing anger towards her situation alarmingly well.
The primary focus of the film, however, is on this young woman’s drive to be the best at what she does, in this case gymnastics, and it’s mostly what you’d expect. There are a lot of scenes where she’s subjected to long and tiresome training, where she doesn’t get on too well with her new teammates, and where she inevitably gets to show the world what she can do at the Championships. At no point is it ever done badly, as it’s directed and shot tightly enough by Grappe and cinematographer Lucie Baudinaud, but at the same time it’s not the freshest story in the world, and you really can sense how the film’s unexpectedly resonant political themes carry a lot of the overall impact it makes.
However, whether it’s a masterpiece or not is entirely irrelevant: Olga is now representative of a humanitarian effort to draw attention to the tragic state of affairs happening in Ukraine right now, and as such it’s vital to give the movie enough of a spotlight to at least highlight the cause it has unintentionally become central to. It’s certainly a good movie regardless, but the weight it now carries will almost certainly be all that any future reviewer will surely focus on more than the merits of the actual movie. At least it’s all for a good enough cause.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Olga is a compelling drama that carries significant political and cultural resonance in the midst of the ongoing war in its native Ukraine, which is enough to overlook its slightly familiar plot.