A cinematic and dramatic treat, this spectacular piece of contemporary Russian filmmaking follows two meteorologists stationed on a remote, beautiful and dangerous Arctic island. Tasked with logging various climatic measurements and reporting via radio each day are old hand Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) – a rugged, solid and methodically unimaginative man in his 50’s – and fresh from college Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), who understands little of the daily routines that have been followed by many before him to make life workable in the extreme conditions. While Sergei works stoically away – his only pleasure catching a few fresh sea trout now and then – Pavel listens to music through headphones, plays video games and explores the deserted station like a distracted young boy.
The two men are as different, perhaps, as old and new Russia, which isn’t a problem when things are running smoothly. But when trouble strikes their two-man world in the form of a dreadful message that Pavel is instructed to pass onto Sergei, a psychological meltdown is triggered in the young man and their isolated world starts to unravel. In the background – creeping always nearer – is the prospect of nuclear contamination from a nearby abandoned generator, another metaphor for the Russian condition.
Writer and director Aleksei Popogrebsky dragged his cast and crew to the northeastern tip of Siberia to make this film, and cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov has captured the big-screen beauty of the landscape with exquisite care (the film has won several awards for cinematography and artistic achievement). The sound design – often overlooked in filmmaking – is extraordinary, supervising sound editor Vladimir Golovnitsky layering the whispering, haunting noises of the Arctic landscape to add to the intensity of the atmosphere.
The two actors give outstanding performances as very different men trapped together with a gulf of complex generational differences separating them. Dobrygin – playing the young man in an out-of-control father/son relationship – has the more difficult task with a script that pushes his character beyond the boundaries of rational behaviour, which some audiences and critics have found problematic. But the raw psychology goes with the raw landscape: it is a wild place, well beyond civilisation and civility, and a dramatic, epic place where unpredictable grand gestures seem more than appropriate.
Popsgrebsky shows his talent as director in controlling the pacing of this film – the first half with its slow beauty, and the second with its desperate rising sense of madness. Part art-house thriller, part atmospheric poetry, it’s all beautiful.