A smoothly produced period melodrama unfolding in the southwestern Polish city of Legnica, headquarters to the Soviet forces stationed in Poland from 1945-90, “Little Moscow” traces the politically dangerous love affair between Vera (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the beautiful wife of a Russian military pilot, and Michal (seductive Leslaw Zurek), a dashing Polish lieutenant. Delving into a period of Eastern bloc history not previously exploited by popular cinema, noted Polish writer-helmer Waldemar Krzystek (“Suspended” “Dismissed From Life”) paints a broad-strokes but no less affecting portrait of the tension-filled Soviet-Polish “friendship” of the times.
Judged best film at Poland’s national Gdynia festival in September to the scorn of local crix who preferred artier fare, the widescreen, high-concept pic scored more than 40,000 admissions during its opening over the Nov. 28 weekend. It’s got the goods for niche theatrical release in former Soviet satellite countries and could serve as a more mainstream fest entry elsewhere.
Set in 1967-68, the central tale of the ill-fated affair is framed by a cover story taking place 30 years later. Latter tale involves Yuri (stoic Dmitrij Ulianov), the betrayed husband, and his putative daughter (also called Vera and also played by Khodchenkova) returning to Legnica to discover what really happened.
The script by Krzystek gives a good sense of the ’60s, stressing Soviet prohibitions against fraternizing with the locals, who weren’t even allowed to enter their enclave. Contact was supposed to remain on an official level; nevertheless, all manner of interaction took place — even, as a subplot shows, Russian babies baptized secretly in Polish churches.
However, some characters, relationships and situations seem peculiarly abridged, betraying the fact the pic was cut down from a miniseries of four 56-minute parts. The series will screen on Polish TV after the feature finishes its run.
Although some of the many characters come off as mere types (e.g., the nefarious KGB agents), Krzystek’s restrained directing choices keep the pic from descending into simple soap opera.
Managing to make her dual characters distinct, slender, sloe-eyed strawberry blonde Khodchenkova nabbed Gdynia’s best actress prize. Her fascinating ’60s Vera credibly evolves from faithful Russian wife to a woman willing to give up her patrimony for the man she loves. But ’90s Vera too often comes off as a shrill ball-breaker.
Costume and hair design stand out among lush tech credits, with aging makeup in modern scenes the sole unconvincing element.