"The State Counsellor" marks the latest film outing for novelist Boris Akunin's Fandorin character after local smash "Turkish Gambit." New movie sees the franchise maturing with a darker tone and an older thesp as lead, while sophomore helmer Filipp Yankovsky is alleged to have been guided by pic's producer and co-star Nikita Mikhalkov.

Opulent Russian thriller “The State Counsellor” marks the latest film outing for novelist Boris Akunin’s Fandorin character after local smash “Turkish Gambit.” New movie sees the franchise maturing with a darker tone and an older thesp as lead (Oleg Menshikov replacing Yegor Beroyev), while sophomore helmer Filipp Yankovsky (“Moving”) is alleged to have been guided by pic’s producer and co-star Nikita Mikhalkov. More polished than “Gambit” but less fun, “Counsellor” scored disappointing numbers at home post-April release, but meatier subject could help export product overseas if marketing departments take wise counsel.

Although pic’s script assumes some awareness of sleuthing abilities of Poirot-like hero Erast Fandorin (Menshikov), hardly any knowledge of Akunin’s original thrillers or “Turkish Gamibit” is necessary. Story unfolds in 1891, 14 years after events depicted in previous film, a turbulent period when anarchist groups, treated with great sympathy here, are sowing the seeds that will be harvested in the revolutions to come.

A high-ranking official is killed on a train by an assassin calling himself State Counsellor Erast Fandorin. Of course, the killer is not the real Fandorin (Menshikov) — who is summoned to solve the murder — but an anarchist named Green (Konstantin Khabensky), who is in contact with a double agent working within the state department.

Fandorin’s task is to hunt down Green and his cronies and sniff out the rat. Fandorin investigates a selection of suspects, at one point disseminating misinformation to see who’s the leak. Jocular but ruthlessly ambitious top cop Pozharsky (Mikhalkov) helps out.

Meanwhile, Green starts to suspect his informant, whom he’s never met, may have an agenda not entirely congruent with the aims of the proletariat. And, Green’s joining forces with another terrorist, Kozir (Vladimir Mashkov), produces friction when Kozir’s prostitute g.f. Juli (Maria Mironova) proves fickle with her favors. Seems like the only person Green can trust is aristo-turned-anarchist Igla (Oksana Fandera) — or can he?

As detective fiction, plot is passable but not gripping, while helming credited to Yankovsky is competent but somewhat lacking in juice. For the record, script softens ending of original Akunin book, but the cynicism about the State’s tolerance of the unscrupulous still lingers throughout, striking a contempo resonance for Russian auds.

Pic’s more-than-able ensemble go at the material with gusto, with extra plaudits due to a soulful Khabensky (on a second outing with Yankovsky after “Moving”) and a serpent-sleek Mikhalkov, whose respective characters rep contrasting alter egos for the hero. Only Menshikov himself disappoints with his excessively prissy, charisma-free Fandorin.

In typical Russian period-pic style, production design by Vladimir Aronin, costumes (Sergei Struchyov) and use of snowy locations are all aces, with well-balanced widescreen lensing by Vladislav Opelyants. Trashy pop song over the closing credits that sounds like a Eurovision Song Contest reject is truly abysmal, but could be shorn for foreign export.

The State Counsellor

Russia

Production

A Nikita Mikhalkov's Studio Tri-Te production, in association with Channel One, Mosfilm, with the support of Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography. (International sales: Channel One, Moscow.) Produced by Leonid Vereshchagin, Mikhalkov. Executive producers, Natalia Birulina, Alexei Balashov, Sergei Gurevich. Directed by Filipp Yankovsky. Screenplay, Boris Akunin.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Vladislav Opelyants; editors, Enzo Meniconi, Yaroslav Mochalov; music, Enri Lolashvili; production designer, Vladimir Aronin; costumes, Sergei Struchyov; sound (Dolby Digital), Konstantin Zarin. Reviewed at Sochi Open Russian Film Festival (competing), June 12, 2005. Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Oleg Menshikov, Nikita Mikhalkov, Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Mashkov, Oleg Tabakov, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Maria Mironova, Mikhail Efremov, Emilia Spivak, Oksana Fandera, Alexei Gorbunov.
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