The Stoker

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Wed 10 Apr 2013

The Stoker

The Stoker

Just as actors can be typecast, so can national cinemas. In the US, for example, audiences often expect British movies to be either Stately Home, or Ken Loach. In the UK, we like our French movies to have a Depardieu, a gamin, nudity or all three. 

In a similar manner, for decades now the world has liked Russian and Soviet movies to be a doleful grisaille, Moscow gangsters on voddy, Tarkovsky’s metaphysics, Sokurov’s sotto voce despair, etc. This is the cinematic mood music that sells around the world and, so, it’s the kind of Russian cinema that gets distributed abroad. This is a shame, because some of the best soviet films are the glorious comedies and musicals of the 1950s and the spiky, baroque, Felliniesque films of one of the world’s greatest directors, Kira Muratova, who now lives in the Ukraine but who works in the Russian language.

I say these things because I’ve just seen a new Russian film which dances to a very different tune. The Stoker has gangsters, as we’d expect from a modern Russian film, but is filmed and cut to something like a cha-cha beat. It is crime bossa nova, if you like. It’s set in St Petersburg and is about the various people who interact with an old Yakut guy who was once a national hero and who now spends his life stoking a furnace. Brutal things happen, but the film shows them with furnace humour, gallows humour, bellows humour. The Stoker is as good as some of the best Coen films. It has their crisp way with an image, their gentle grotesque, their sharp pen-portraiture of larger than life people. It reminded me a lot of the movies of Aki Kaurismaki and has some of the sauciness of Pedro Almodovar.

To say these things, of course, is to send out mixed messages. A Russian film that’s like an American film, or a Finnish one or a Spanish one? How can that be? It can be, of course, because lots of great art is mongrel, hyphenated, its own thing, its own bailiwick. Just like we are. The Stoker is a delight, a small crisp thing, like a Fabergé egg (oh no, a national stereotype again). It’s bold, frank, sexual, wry and spry. Stare into its flames and you’ll see a powerful metaphor, too, a gate of hell.

Well done to Filmhouse for distributing it. Anyone who’s interested in Russian movies, or deadpan comedy, war films or the theme of PTSD in cinema, should see or programme it.

Mark Cousins


Click here for more information on The Stoker.


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