The Stringer

Though it's set in Russia, was largely shot in Russia, and its characters speak Russian, "The Stringer" feels British through and through. Serious-minded but yawnsomely conventional, it's yet another of those TV-financed Brit pics that seem to feature the same tastefully anonymous look and tepidly earnest approach to unsurprising subject matter.

With:
Vadik - Sergei Bodrov Jr. Helen - Ana Friel Yavorsky - Vladimir Ilyin John - Robert Knepper Mother - Anna Kamenkova Mityagin - Leonid Kuravlyav Lyosha - Alexia Khardikov

Though it’s set in Russia, was largely shot in Russia, and its characters speak Russian, “The Stringer” feels British through and through. Serious-minded but yawnsomely conventional, it’s yet another of those TV-financed Brit pics that seem to feature the same tastefully anonymous look and tepidly earnest approach to unsurprising subject matter. Telling of a young news cameraman in post-Cold War Russia, it’s essentially a closely circumscribed TV travelogue in dramatic form; fittingly, its career should be largely confined to Eurotube outlets.

Helmer Paul Pawlikowski has numerous British TV docs to his credit, and his careful, observant style here makes it easy to imagine that he’s very skilled at the nonfiction form. “The Stringer,” however, comes across as a half-baked attempt to wrest drama from facts that aren’t particularly compelling in themselves, and that at this point are also rather outdated. Throughout, pic’s p.o.v. feels highly superficial, like a magazine article designed to tell the reader the same three or four things that every other article has relayed regarding conditions in post-Communist Russia.

Story focuses on Vadik (Sergei Bodrov Jr.), a would-be TV cameraman who trundles around looking for footage that might interest the West’s well-paying news outlets. In the course of one such attempt, he meets Helen (Anna Friel), a British TV producer who provides the tale’s formulaic and rather desultory love interest.

Another encounter introduces him to an eccentric nationalist politician named Yavorsky (Vladimir Ilyin), who is obviously modeled on Vladimir Zhirinovsky. An assassination attempt on the aspiring demagogue that Vadik films turns out to have been faked in hopes of stirring up sympathy, yet the deception only deepens the younger man’s fascination with Yavorsky, and a wary sort of friendship grows between them.

Extremely episodic in its unfolding, pic doesn’t do much to explore any of its main characters or the themes they potentially represent. The mainsprings of Russians’ nationalist political sentiments (a story that’s rather cold by now), for example, aren’t really probed or developed by Pawlikowski and Gennadi Ostrovsky’s meandering script. Rather, Yavorsky is presented for his rather limited amount of human interest and, presumably, for the fact that Western viewers may recognize the man he’s based on.

This skimming approach to dramatic issues helps deprive the film of any real tension and narrative buildup, as well as making its political observations seem shallow and even unintentionally exploitative.

One compensating virtue is that Pawlikowski reveals a knack for droll, offbeat comedy in many scenes. Additionally, Bodrov (who previously appeared in “Prisoner of the Mountain” and “The Brother”) has a natural and appealing screen presence that makes the film’s progress more pleasant than it otherwise would have been. Tech credits are all fine, with credits indicating that different crews contributed footage from the U.K. and Poland as well as Russia.

The Stringer

United Kingdom

Production: A BBC Films presentation, with the participation of British Screen, of a Pepper Pictures production. Produced by Fiona Morham. Executive producers, Charles Pattinson, George Faber, David M. Thompson, Waldemar Krol (Poland). Directed by Paul Pawlikowski. Screenplay, Pawlikowski, Gennadi Ostrovsky.

Crew: Camera (color), Witold Stok; editor, William Diver; music, Zdzislaw Szostak; production designers, Vladimir Mirzin (Russia), Jacek Turewicz (Poland); set decorator, Elena Shkatova; costume designers, Marina Ananyeva (Russia), Malgorzata Obloza (Poland); assistant directors, Yuri Kriutchkov (Russia), Janusz Blaszczyk (Poland), Mary Soan (U.K.); casting, Natalia Krimenskayya. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 18, 1998. Running time: 92 MIN.

With: Vadik - Sergei Bodrov Jr. Helen - Ana Friel Yavorsky - Vladimir Ilyin John - Robert Knepper Mother - Anna Kamenkova Mityagin - Leonid Kuravlyav Lyosha - Alexia Khardikov

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