Monday, 13 September 2010
TIFF 2010 - The Edge
The Edge (2010) dir. Alexey Uchitel
Starring: Vladimir Mashkov, Yulia Peresild, Anjorka Strechel and Sergey Garmash
By Greg Klymkiw
While it is unfair to condemn a film for what it isn't. one is almost tempted to do so with Alexey Uchitel's The Edge. "Almost" is the operative word, however, because its achievements in a number of areas are considerable and yet, given its setting and, in particular, the vast political ramifications of said time and place, it's somewhat disappointing that the film makes no real attempt to undo the almost criminal negligence on the part of filmmakers (both Russian and American) to tackle one of the most heinous legacies of Communism.
Most of us are familiar with Russia's notorious Siberian exile and forced labour camps via Olexandr Solzhenitsyn's monumental literary works such as "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" or his monumental two-volume work of non-fiction, "The Gulag Archipelago" among many other great works. Alas, the butchery and genocide of 60 million innocents in the Siberian death camps of the Communist regime remains a setting virtually untouched by filmmakers.
A great and sadly neglected Norwegian-British 70s adaptation of "Ivan Denisovich" by Caspar Wrede is really the only worthy film in existence dealing directly with this tragedy of immense proportions. Aside from a handful of mostly poor features and MOWs, a few documentaries and Serhey Paradjanov's unfinished feature The Confession, the Communist Holocaust perpetrated against Christian and Jewish anti-communists and socialists critical of the regime itself in the extreme northern region of the Gulag, account for all that exists in the cinema about this shameful period of Russian history.
At the beginning of The Edge, a title explaining the Russian-German pact with respect to northern labour camps devoted housing Germans in the Gulag, set up the expectations that this might be the first serious Russian film from an established filmmaker to deal with the subject of the forced incarceration of political prisoners.
Alas, it turns out not to be. In its stead is a brawny, macho adventure film about a shell shocked war hero who is relocated to command the only working train in the region and the rivalry between the two men who are the only ones with the ability to drive the sole lifeline between the Gulag and the rest of the world. Battling for rail superiority and the two most desirable female prisoners is the film's central conflict.
This overlong film is endowed with moments of greatness and cinematic virtuosity. but the screenplay by Aleksandr Gonorovsky spends far too much time dealing with the more melodramatic romance rivalries instead of what it seems to really want to do which is - to deliver a bunch of great set-pieces involving the hair-raising, break-neck steam engine races. In this sense, the script needed considerable simplification to bring it into the territory of existential male angst which, in turn. might have actually yielded far more layering instead of the hodge-podge of story strands and character relationships that merely bog things down.
All this said, when Uchitel focuses on the trains and the men who drive them (not unlike how H.G. Clouzot and William Friedkin lavished similar attention upon the trucks of nitroglycerin in Wages of Fear and its underrated remake Sorcerer), then - and only then - does The Edge truly shine. Its fierce, obsessive and relentless.
The action set-pieces which are bereft of annoying CGI effects are harrowing and exciting - all the more so because we're seeing real men drive real trains at utterly insane speeds. Even the long sequence involving the restoration of a train lost in a tangle of Taiga foliage and the subsequent rebuilding of a crumbling train trestle have the same energy as the magnificent train races.
But then there's the love interest - completely unnecessary save for passing acknowledgement. These boys love their trains - not their women. The long hunks of metal powered by fire and steam power are, in a sense (and not so subtly), extensions of their penises - dick swinging of the highest order.
This is first-rate boys' adventure stuff and if the filmmakers had left well enough alone to focus on just that, The Edge, they might have had a great slam-banging action picture instead of a good one. And that might have gone a long way to account for and forgive a film set in the Gulag that all but ignores what that region truly represents.
Than again, even that would only go so far. After all, could one imagine a film set in and around any number of Nazi death camps and all but ignore what they represent to serve the needs of a macho ass-kicker?