A distinctly Russian cocktail of high drama and low comedy in which a nuclear plant worker, dying from radiation poisoning, mistakenly depends on an inept Moscow low-life to sell some purloined plutonium, “The Half Life of Timofey Berezin” is a U.S.-funded, Euro-shot, English-lingo effort that tries mightily to bridge the wide gap between its tonal extremes, but in the end is an uncomfortable and unsatisfying sit. Stateside distrib Picturehouse will find this a challenge, but could drum up modest biz, via co-producer Section 8 partners George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, prior to the pic’s true calling on cable and disc.
In the top-secret town of Skotoprigonyevsk, conscientious plant worker Timofey Berezin (Paddy Considine) steps in to plug a leak and is abandoned for his trouble. He becomes the victim of an administrative cover-up, and, after being suspended without pay, discovers the fatal dose has rendered him a dead man walking. Though he doesn’t tell his devoted wife, Marina (Radha Mitchell), she suspects the worst.
Meanwhile, in the newly-capitalist frontier town that was Moscow in 1995, small-time pimp Shiv (Oscar Isaac) schemes with inept, casually vicious buddies Vlad (Jason Flemyng) and Yegor (Jordan Long) on varied enterprises including protection. When they torch the wrong shop by mistake, however, they wind up in hot water with local gangster Tusk (Nikolaj Lie Kaas).
After Timofey steals a small tube of plutonium and shows up in an open-air market controlled by Shiv, the criminal’s efforts to parlay the substance into debt relief prompts the wrath of ruthless mob boss Starkov (Steven Berkoff).
Helmer Scott Z. Burns, a producer of the recent Al Gore docu “An Inconvenient Truth,” has set the bar high for his first directorial effort. With so many different nationalities repped in the cast, the decision to shoot in heavily accented English was probably necessary. Though the accents sound uniformly fine to the untrained ear, their presence is a distraction; when, in one scene, a background television blares out a Russian-language program, the gambit falls apart.
In a similar vein, though the filmmakers’ intent was clearly to position Timofey and Shiv as polar opposites playing the new, and fatally rigged, game of capitalism — as was the aim of the 22-page Ken Kalfus story on which it was based — see-sawing between the physical deterioration of the grief-stricken yet determined Timofey and the comical violent bumbling of Shiv is too dramatically schizophrenic: imagine anticipating a Ken Loach film and being shown a Guy Ritchie movie.
In the face of these challenges, thesping is strong. Considine’s mournful Timofey is the soul of dignified despair, while relative newcomer Isaac and first-time villain Kaas, the Danish-born star of the Susanne Bier films “Open Hearts” and “Brothers,” make strong impressions. Berkoff’s done so many of these ruthless underworld types, and done them so well, that there’s little new he can bring to the party.
Pic’s aces in the hole are the stunning camerawork of d.p. Eigil Bryld and spot-on production design of Tom Meyer, who together create a post-Perestroika Russia that oozes with veracity. Plant scenes were shot in and around an electrical facility in Ploiest, Romania, with Moscow locations cementing the illusion.