Robust Russian period meller “The Edge” is less interested in the politics or injustices of its chosen milieu — Siberian prison camps just after WWII — than in a glowering hero’s steely machismo and the romance of old steam-engine trains. Vet helmer Alexey Uchitel’s latest may fall between commercial and arthouse terrain for some international buyers, but outside home territories, it could pick up a healthy share of specialized home-format sales. It’s slated as Russia’s 2010 Oscar submission.
Opening titles inform us that upon returning home, many among the huge number of Russians who’d survived capture by Axis forces found themselves accused of treason by Stalin and were sent off to Soviet labor camps or worse.
But that’s the beginning and end of “The Edge’s” concern for the historical big picture. Once the pic arrives at a godforsaken Gulag outpost, raucous local color rather than toilsome suffering defines the tone of the next two hours. Prisoners of both sexes have formed a makeshift community with plenty of time for bawdy joking and home-brew swilling, as well as logging, under the weak leadership of their one-armed military commander (Aleksei Gorbanov).
His command is quickly usurped, in practice if not by official order, with the arrival of war hero Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov), posted here as a train engineer, though his occasional seizures have gotten him banned from actually driving the trains. (Not that he obeys that ruling for more than five minutes.) The one attractive female here, saucy blonde Sofia (Yulia Peresild), quickly assesses him as an Alpha-male prize catch — to the considerable grief of the beau she now dumps — and Ignat unceremoniously moves into the private room she’s allowed as sole resident parent of a young child.
Told there’s a ghost on a nearby island connected to the mainland by a partially destroyed bridge, Ignat marches (and wades) off to find out for himself. There, he discovers a near-feral girl, Elsa (Anjorka Strechel), living in a rusted-over but intact train compartment. He “tames” her (platonically), forcing her cooperation in repairing the train’s engine and the broken bridge span, discovering en route — though neither speaks the other’s language — that she is the sole surviving member of a German party that had traveled here in 1940 as train engineers.
Once they steam into camp some time later, residents are nonplussed by Elsa, mostly because anti-German sentiments remain potent. Somewhat haphazard narrative progress has the populace going vigilante against the duo one minute, then championing them against a hated replacement commander the next. Climax wouldn’t be out of place in a D.W. Griffith silent.
Any implausibility is overridden by the pic’s larger-than-life tenor and ample streaks of humor. (There’s a running gag involving the “Immortal Bear,” a gigantic mammal constantly shambling through the woods and village.) While characters and situations are sketched in broad terms, the fairly expansive physical production impresses in its mix of the handsome and gritty.
David Holmes’ (“Red,” “Ocean’s 11”) big, throwback orchestral score is notable among the savvy design contributions.