Overblown, overlong and decidedly underwhelming on every level, Nikita Mikhalkov’s magnum opus “The Barber of Siberia” is a singular disappointment. This unwieldy melange of broad comedy (which at times would not be out of place in a “Police Academy” outing), pedestrian drama and utterly unbelievable romance impresses only with its sumptuous images of Czarist Russia. Pic probably will perform modestly in Europe, where the incongruities of the English dialogue will be undetected, but in Anglo territories it will open and close quickly. Lead thesps Julia Ormond and Richard Harris will be of little help in attracting audiences.
A long-term project for Mikhalkov, and his first since his 1994 Oscar winner “Burnt by the Sun,” “Barber” notably lacks the sentiment and charm of his best work, which has been on a far more intimate scale. This Euro pudding, though principally Russian, finds the director floundering with a couple of American characters (played by a British actress and an Irish actor) who remain stubbornly unconvincing.
The Russian characters are altogether more interesting, but the decision to pitch the first half of the film as a broad comedy proves disastrous, as these labored and undisciplined sequences refuse to work. About two-thirds through the overextended pic, Mikhalkov shifts gears in favor of romantic melodrama, but the lack of chemistry between Ormond and Russian actor Oleg Menshikov proves an insurmountable liability.
The film opens in 1905 in Springfield, Mass., as a woman, face unseen, composes a letter addressed to a young military cadet; content of the letter, in voiceover, underlines what follows.
The cadet in question, attending a cliff-top summer training camp (filmed in Portugal), has fallen afoul of his oafish sergeant (Mac MacDonald) over a ridiculous, and ludicrously protracted, argument about the worth of Mozart as a composer. The lad is punished by being forced to wear a suffocating gas mask until he recants his admiration for Mozart: Fact that he refuses points to his Russian sensibility, making the “secret” the letter writer keeps mentioning all too obvious from the very start.
The main story begins 20 years earlier in Russia as Jane Callahan (Ormond) travels by train to Moscow. During the journey, she meets some boisterous army recruits, among them Andrei Tolstoy (Menshikov), who, he assures Jane, is no relation to the great author. Andrei is smitten by the elegantly dressed American.
Jane has come to Moscow to help Douglas McCracken (Harris), who may be her father. McCracken has invented a fearsome machine designed for speedy and efficient logging of Siberian forests. He calls the monster the Barber of Siberia, and needs Jane’s help in persuading gullible Gen. Radlov (Alexei Petrenko), the officer in charge of the military academy, to seek financial support for the venture from the Grand Duke.
One of the pic’s more impressive sequences takes place as Jane arrives in the city just at the moment anarchists assassinate an official riding by in a coach. The cadets are parading in the area, and Tolstoy becomes involved in the subsequent shootout, though the sensitive youth deliberately allows one of the gunmen to escape.
At the military academy, Jane meets Tolstoy again while at the same time flirting with Radlov, who soon decides he’d like to marry her, using Tolstoy as his intermediary because the latter speaks English. This simple part of the plot takes an inordinate amount of time to unfold, punctuated as it is by strenuously unfunny slapstick scenes and sequences featuring the playfully rowdy cadets. A scene in which a formal ball is thrown into chaos because the floor has been so polished (by the cadets) that it’s exceedingly slippery might have worked — except that it’s extended long after the joke has paled.
After about two hours, Jane and Tolstoy finally get to consummate their love, and now the film shifts into high dramatic gear with confessions, misunderstandings and a lengthy separation as Tolstoy is carted off to Siberia for an alleged assault on the Grand Duke. Film’s climax, in which Ormond wears a distractingly unbecoming hat, is, like so much of the film, allowed to stretch on long after the viewer has gotten the point and worked out the supposedly deep, dark secret.
Ormond, even more out of place here than she was in “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” can make little of her pivotal character, though Menshikov is more convincing as the soulful young cadet. Harris is given almost no opportunities, and in one scene is allowed to sit with his mouth wide open for minutes on end.
Best performance comes from Petrenko as the rather pathetic Radlov. Anna Mikhalkova, the helmer’s daughter, is sweet as a servant girl who secretly loves Tolstoy. Mikhalkov himself appears, imposingly, as Czar Alexander III in a magnificent scene in which the newly graduated cadets meet their emperor — if only the entire film had been on this level.
Production values are polished in every department, with fine widescreen lensing by Pavel Lebeshev of spectacular Moscow streets and buildings in winter and summer. The Siberian forest sequences are also fine, though environmentalists may quail at the destructiveness of the titular Barber. Editor Enzo Meniconi’s indulgent handling of the material results in a film that overstays its welcome by about an hour.