All that Soviet jazz
Hundreds of movies come out every year. Some great, some terrible, many forgotten. Director Fred Schepisi’s 1990 Tom Stoppard-penned adaptation of the John le Carre novel The Russia House wasn’t a hit. Despite the star power of Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, the film received mixed reviews and modest box office success before falling into obscurity. Thanks to MGM and Twilight Time, the adult political drama has a second chance to impress an audience of 3,000 Blu-ray buyers.
The Russia House follows rumpled book publisher “Barley” Blair (Sean Connery), who stumbles into a spy career when a Soviet scientist (Klaus Maria Brandauer) inspired by his politics decides to hand over classified military secrets via beautiful intermediary Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer). During the handoff, however, the clandestine manuscript is intercepted by British and U.S. intelligence who care more about its secrets than the reluctant Barley, who is more interested in Katya.
The Russia House is a slow burn compared to most spy movies. This isn’t Bond. It isn’t Bourne. It isn’t even The Hunt for Red October. The story is set during the late-’80s period of Soviet transparency known as glasnost, which helped open the door for Russian democracy. In it, the Cold War is in full swing but as Barley discovers, the amped up tensions between the US and USSR are largely for show. It’s the end of the line. The arms race is a sham, and the Russian people are ready to embrace a new way of life.
The film has intrigue, but Stoppard and Schepisi are more interested in Connery and Pfeiffer’s burgeoning relationship than the smuggling of state secrets. The Russia House is about men tasked with watching who see nothing, and the triumph of philosophy over ideology. It’s a refreshing twist on the genre, though I can see why it alienated viewers and critics. It’s an oddly paced film, mixing non-chronological storytelling that asks viewers to assemble the plot for themselves with scenes that slow to the pace of a romantic drama. Characters talk more than act. Viewers who come in expecting cloak and dagger excitement will be disappointed.
Those willing to meet the film on its own terms will find a lot to like. Consider the pedigree: screenplay by Tom Stoppard, starring Connery and Pfeiffer with supporting performances by Roy Scheider, James, Fox, John Mahoney, and Ken Russell, and a score by Jerry Goldsmith. Australian director Schepisi may not be a household name, but his eclectic filmography, including Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, Plenty, and Fierce Creatures, speaks to wide-ranging interests. This isn’t a gun-for hire content to churn out the same kind of film over and over. The Russia House mixes style and story in ways that didn’t fully click with me, but the film has passionate fans. This Blu-ray was made for them.
Even if you aren’t sold on the story, The Russia House is worth watching as a time capsule. It marked the first time a Western film crew was permitted to shoot extensively in Soviet Russia. The film is a remarkable peek into a lost world. Schepisi doesn’t waste any opportunities to let the camera linger on the surrounding people, places, and architecture. The film sympathizes with our then-mortal enemies, without ever feeling like propaganda or hiding a message of tolerance that still resonates today.
Twilight Time worked with MGM to put out this limited edition Blu-ray with very good results. The 2.35:1 1080p transfer is better than average for a catalog release. Color isn’t vibrant but it looks natural. Detail is strong in spots, soft in others, but without any of that nasty digital sharpening that seems to have finally gone out of style. This is the best the film has ever looked on home video, and given its niche fanbase probably the best it ever will. The lone audio option is 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. No surround sound, but the stereo mix is crisp and clear, prioritizing Jerry Goldsmith’s jazz fusion score. Goldsmith reportedly loves the score. Fans of the film do as well. Like many things about The Russia House, it’s not what you’d expect. Those who dig the sax-by-way-of-Stalin score have a treat waiting for them in the extras: an isolated audio score. The remainder of the bonus features include a booklet with an effusive write-up about the film, a standard-def widescreen theatrical trailer (3:32), and the standard-def full screen featurette “Building The Russia House” (8:25), ported over from the DVD. The low-fi archival bonus feature is a nice add for fans looking for a definitive release.
I’m not sure how I feel about The Russia House. I respect its ambition and willingness to tweak the spy genre to make a political point. I’m impressed by the talent in front of and behind the camera. But I also find some of the dialogue stilted, and the plot occasionally boring. The film may not be for me, but it’s great Twilight Time put its boutique weight behind a Blu-ray release for a title its advocates wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.